Monday, 15 April 2013

Namib Desert Challenge 2013, NAMIBIA : 230km

Ever since I competed at the Marathon des Sables (MDS) back in 2006, I have dreamed of running in many other deserts in this world. My experience at the MDS has given me the assurance that I have the capability to deal extremely well with high temperatures and difficult terrains (sand dunes). Unfortunately, due to my professional developments and commitments, it had taken me almost 6 years after MDS before I finally had the chance to participate in another desert race, this time the Atacama Crossing in Chile, which I competed in 2012.

I had an amazing experience at the Atacama Crossing and at the end of the race, I concluded that my skills at adapting to extreme hot environments had remained intact despite the fact that I had resided in England since 2008. With that reaffirmation, I decided to look for another desert race to compete in this year. This time around, I set out to look for a race with a different concept than that of Atacama Crossing. I did not want to do another race where I will be burdened with having to carry a heavy load consisting of all my food supply, equipment and sleeping essentials like I did at Atacama. I have already been allocated an opportunity to compete at the Western States Endurance Run in June 2013 and that race is my main priority. I cannot afford any risk of injuries and I do not want to work my body too hard before that event. 

With that in mind, I began to search for a desert race which will give me a more relaxing experience. I wanted to run a race where I can just concentrate on my running and be in the midst of stunning landscapes and different terrains, a race where I can have a nice shower and good food after every stage, in time to recover for the following day. I found that in the Namib Desert Challenge (NDC). Not only did the concept of the race fitted exactly what I was looking for, it happened to take place at one of my dream destinations, the Sossusvlei Namib-Naukluft National Park.

I promptly registered for the NDC without any second thoughts. I must admit that the NDC website did not inspire me very much when I first looked at it. Except for a few photos with some stunning backdrops, the website did not give me a complete idea of what kind of different terrains I will be running on and it did not exactly show where I am to camp, how food is going to be served and how the utility facilities are like on the camping ground. In short, it was difficult for me to imagine the set-up of the race from the website alone.

Despite all these shortcomings, my doubts were slowly extinguished when I began exchanging e-mails with the organiser, Kinetic Enduro Events. Terence Southam (Terry), the Race Director, was quick to answer my various queries and I was assured through his replies that this is going to be a well-organised race and that the people behind it are trying their very best to make it a good one.

A few days before leaving England for Namibia, I checked the number of runners who will be participating at the race and I was rather disappointed to discover that there were only so few of us. I tried not to allow this disappointment to dampen my excitement. Anyway, by that time, I was already so looking forward to escape from my daily work routine to somewhere hot and dry!! I flew with my wife, Hannisze, from Manchester to Johannesburg via Amsterdam. The following day, we continued our journey to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia.

We spent two nights in Windhoek (the maximum period of time you need to see all the highlights of the city) and the atmosphere was so relaxed that at times, we forgot that it was the capital of the country. Everything seemed to be happening on or around Independence Avenue, with pavement cafes and picturesque old buildings with German Architecture lining it, giving it a very European feel. There were no skyscrapers to spoil the horizon of the city and we were surprised to find many modern shopping complexes around, with the local middle-class people adopting the Western fashion and lifestyle.

Downtown Windhoek
On our first day in Windhoek, I ventured out from our hotel to find a trail to run. I headed first to the Parliament Gardens, a lovely spot with many locals picnicking around but I found it too small for a 60’ run. I continued running close to the National Botanical Garden and before long, I spotted a sign for a hiking trail!! Very soon after taking the trail, I found myself on the top of a hill which offered me an amazing panoramic view of the city and a nice loop of 4km.

Panoramic view of Windhoek 
I was so happy with my unexpected discovery after having been told by almost everyone (from the airport taxi driver to the hotel receptionist and concierge) that there is not any trail around the hotel which I can run on. At times like this, which happened rather often at all the new places which we have visited, I wonder whether the locals really do know their towns/cities or have familiarity made them take things for granted?

On the following day, Sunday 24th March, we took a taxi to the meeting point at Hotel Thule for the bus transfer (provided by the organiser) to the Race Village. Most of the runners have stayed at this hotel and were already gathered by the bus when we arrived a little after 10:30. The journey to the Race Village was a long 5 hours’ drive without any stop. The first 3 hours was quite boring, with flat landscape and very few small villages or towns scattered along the route.

Fortunately, as we were getting closer to the Namib-Naukluft National Park, the view became more interesting. We were greeted with spectacular views of the Naukluft Mountains. The name Naukluft means ‘narrow ravine’ which is apt for the landscapes of plunging cliffs. Over the millennia, rainwater has gradually cut into this massive range of mountains, dissolving the rocks and forming all the steep ravines we then saw.

We finally reached our destination, the Sesriem area, a plateau about 700m high, where the access gate to the famous Sossusvlei area is situated. We were first dropped off at the Sossusvlei Lodge where the pre-race registration and mandatory equipment checks took place.

Our bus arriving at Sossusvlei Lodge

Entrance of Sossusvlei Lodge
Equipment check

The organiser and crew members were there to introduce themselves and to welcome us. Light refreshments were served and the runners started to mingle and get to know one another. It was also at Sossusvlei Lodge that we were allowed to store our additional baggage which was not needed during the race. All our bags were grouped together and locked in an allocated room. After all checks have been completed, we got on the bus again and were transferred to the Race Village (which is only 1km away from the Lodge) to settle our ‘home’ for the next 5 nights.

Me, Steven Levitas and Mike Chart, going through my equipment check and paperwork

David Abdo and Mike Tibshraeny checking their gear
For the entire duration of the race, we camped at the same location, which was a very well maintained camping ground managed by Sossusvlei Lodge. The location of this place was amazing. It offered us sweeping views across the vast horizons of the area with stunning mountains reaching out to the sky. Each competitor was allocated his/her own tent although in my case, I was sharing mine with Hannisze, which was fine for us because we are both so skinny!!

Race Village

Race Village

The Race Village has separate (male and female) shower and toilet facilities (with toilet papers!!) and were cleaned by the Lodge’s staff on a daily basis.

Female and Male shower and toilet. Hot water provided by the solar panel at the left. 
There is a pool at a neighbouring camp ground (about 500m away) where we can jump into after each stage to escape from the afternoon heat! About the same distance away, there is a petrol kiosk with a general store, selling the basic essentials and food and....(surprise, surprise!!!)...they also have 2 computers with internet facilities. Internet vouchers can also be purchased from the kiosk for the use of these computers and wi-fi on your own devices. The strength was quite alright at the kiosk and can even be reached from the Race Village! There were also several socket points available where you can charge your devices but bear in mind that these are limited and make sure you have the right adaptor. Bring your own solar-charging devices to avoid any disappointment.

Before arriving here, I had really thought that we will be in the middle of nowhere without any modern amenities. How wrong was I!!! What we had at the Race Village was luxurious compared to what I had experienced in other desert races.

After having arranged our bags and inflated our sleeping mattresses and organised our tents, we were transferred back again to the Lodge by bus. We gathered at the Conference Room for the race briefing and were informed of the rules and other important issues pertaining to the race.

Nel, Course Director (left) & Terry, Race Director (right) at the Pre-Race briefing

NDC 2013 Competitors

We then mingled and lingered on the beautiful grounds of the Lodge and witnessed another spectacular African sunset before proceeding to have the pre-race dinner arranged for us.

View from dinner place at Sossusvlei Lodge
Now, this was no normal ‘Pasta Party’ like so many others which I have attended before! This was full course 5-star buffet dinner, starting with a wide variety of salads, followed by endless portions of different types of game-meat which many of us have never tried before, and ending with mouth-watering deserts and fruits. All these, against the backdrop of a spectacular view of far-away mountains and purple-tinged sky with an almost full moon; I really had to pinch myself to confirm that it was real!

Our first night in the tent was not easy after having stayed at Windhoek Hilton for the past 2 nights!! But it was made easier by a lovely breeze and we soon dozed off after a full and tiring day! After the first night, however, we began to appreciate all the other positive aspects around us - to be camping out in nature, listening to the sounds of wild animals, watching the sunrises and sunsets, making new friends, having meals together with all the other runners and crew members.  There were just about 30 of us, like a big family. We were all united by our passion for running and exploring new places. When I think of that now, I see the advantage of this smaller number and appreciate the whole experience of it.

We started and finished from/at different locations for all the stages and for each one of them, we were transferred to and fro by the same bus and driver who had taken us from Windhoek. I must say that we were really pampered!! The driver was part of the crew. He camped with the other crew members on the ground next to the runners’ tents at the same Race Village. Every morning, all of us were transferred to the Start Point together and from the Finish Point, the organiser has thoughtfully arranged for the bus to transfer the runners back to the Race Village in batches according to our completion speed, rather than leaving the early ones having to wait for the others at the Finish.

Transfer bus 

A large Communal Tent with big tables and chairs was set up for the runners to sit around and relax after each stage.  This was a place where we mingled and tended to our blisters, sore joints, aching muscles etc!! Tubs of safe drinking waters were always available but it often got too hot for my liking after having been exposed to the intense heat all day. The runners were responsible to bring their own food for breakfasts and lunches. Light snacks can be bought from the nearby store at the kiosk. Hot boiling water was available during breakfast time. Dinners were provided by the organiser and let me tell you, they were good! Every evening, the staff from the Lodge would come to the Race Village to set up a long table with a spread of delicious food (salad/pasta/meat/fruits/sweets), to be served buffet-style. A chef will be on hand to cook your game-meat to your choice (rare/medium/well-done??). Sigh!! Instead of losing weight at the end of the 5 stages, I think some of us put on more weight instead.

Communal Tent in the background, long buffet table, BBQ pit and chef

Chef from Sossusvlei Lodge

Dinner under the Communal Tent

In a very clever way, the organiser has included the most exciting places and highlights of the area into the race route (not surprising, since the responsible person who started the planning of the race, Nel, has lived and worked there for the past 15 years!!!). By the end of the race, we had run through some very amazing areas which we would not even have the chance to enter even if we pay to do so, as they are located in reserved areas permissible to enter only by special permits.

Another interesting aspect of the race is the organiser’s careful planning in ensuring that the runners are faced with different types of terrains (rocky trails/ dry river beds/sandy paths/ sand dunes/tarmac/canyons) to run on at each stage. I find this to be very important for me at stage races like this one, because by the time I reach the last 2 stages, I am always in need of some inspiration to urge me on, due to the accumulation of tiredness after having clocked so many hours of running. These changes in terrains, landscapes and sceneries certainly served as a big boost for me.

I will now pen down my experience at each stage briefly.

STAGE 1 – 42 KM:
As I stood at the Start Point, I felt happier than ever. After having gone through one of the most horrible winters in England, with regular snowfalls and freezing temperatures, I was ecstatic to have escaped from the gloom and was more than ready to start my running adventure. At around 07:00 I watched the sun rises slowly in the horizon.

Contemplating at Start Point

My body and soul was invaded by a powerful explosion of adrenaline and as I waited impatiently for the final countdown to take-off, I could barely control my eager feet from darting off to explore the beautiful scenery of the desert. I found it difficult too, to control my enthusiasm and fast pace.

The start of Stage 1

I have been so looking forward to run in hot and dry climate such as this, without any slippery, muddy paths and freezing winds. My strategy for this stage was to run fast and to find out how fast the other runners were. In this way, I hoped to can get an idea of their speed level and to modify my own pace accordingly for the following days. Up until the first Check Point (CP), I had been running without turning back to check if anyone was chasing me. I enjoyed my run so much and was totally engrossed with the beauty surrounding me, enveloped in glorious golden sunrise colours and filled with the distinct smells of the desert. The terrain at the start of today’s stage was perfect for a fast run. Upon reaching the first CP, I was still feeling great, so I decided not to disrupt my pace by stopping.

Not long after that, the terrain began to change and the track became more demanding, filled with deep sand. My heart rate rose to 178 but I felt like it was 150. After awhile, the second CP came into view and I stopped for about 10’’ to have a drink of water. I ran through a long dirt track after that, which led up to a hill, with gentle altitude gain.

For the first time, I turned back to check on the other runners but I could not see anyone within a distance of 2 km. Being excited by this fact, I sped up and climbed the hill and was surprised by the presence of Terry, Nel and my wife (with her cameras), waiting to greet me and to see how I was doing.

Me coming up the hill

Nel & Terry

Waving at my wife, who was standing precariously at the edge of a high cliff for this shot!!

I only stopped briefly to give them a wave and a smile, signs which showed that I was fine, before I sped off to conquer the steep descent which followed.

Terry & me

I was told by Nel that there was only about 10km to reach the Finish Point, so I decided to push harder from then on. A few minutes later, I had my first encounter with the wildlife of the desert. A small group of oryxes were running just 100m beside me and further down the track, some springboks were rudely disturbed by my presence and were seen ‘floating’ up and down the air, trying to get away from me!!

One of the Springboks
One of the Springboks


With these surreal close encounters, I was suddenly fuelled with indescribable excitement and happiness, which in turn inspired me to release all the energy remaining in me, to charge to the Finish. My heart rate was reaching 190 at this point, and despite the heat getting stronger as the sun rose higher, I ran like a possessed man, attracted by the presence of the strong oryxes and the graceful springboks so close to me.

The amazing terrains I ran through

The very 'tiny' me against the vastness of nature

Arrow pointing to the Finish 

As I neared the Finish Point, I decided to slow down in the last 3km to conserve some energy for the following days. I was more than satisfied that I have completed the 42km in 3:20’, finishing in the first position. Marius Van Zyl (South Africa) finished 22’ after me and Stephan Pirl (Germany) finished third, 65’ after me. After evaluating the time differences, I had a feeling that I did not have to struggle as much as I did at Atacama Crossing and Al-Andalus Ultimate Trail (AAUT) in Spain to maintain my position.

For the first time in many years, my body felt great after a run of so many kilometres, without any muscle aches or signs of tiredness. I did a lot of stretching and drank plenty of cold water before heading back to the Race Village for lunch. I had brought with me cans of Greek delicacies and today, I had Dolmades (rice rolled in grape vine leaves), Moussaka (pasta with eggplants) and Gigantes (butter beans in tomato sauce). I spent the rest of the day relaxing, socialising and enjoying another delicious dinner similar to the one we had yesterday at the Lodge.

Spoilt for choices!!

Fresh salads

Heiko and Paul Gunner making their selection

Dinner after Stage 1
What a bliss!! I felt so blessed just to be at this amazing place and to be doing what I love most. A lovely breeze that night made our sleep a pleasant one inside our cramped tent. With Hannisze by my side to share my happiness and experience, my joy and satisfaction was definitely doubled.

STAGE 2- 44 KM :
My body has totally recovered from yesterday’s fast pace and I was ready to enjoy another hot day in the desert. I was determined to have another fast run today and to try to make my difference in time from Marius to be totally safe so that I can run a more relaxing race during the last few stages.

Once again, I found the terrain to be perfect for a speedy run during the first 20km.

I reached CP 1 without stopping but stopped at CP 2 for a short break of a few seconds, before arriving at a difficult track in the sand dunes.

Mike Strong helping out at the CP today with a Lodge crew  

Track leading up to sand dune
I could not see any other runners around so I concentrated on the track. I enjoyed this part of the route as I went gently up and down the sand dunes and admired the panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. Not long after that, I came face-to-face with a steep ascent which led me to CP 3 where I stopped to have some cold water and invigorating iced tea. These managed to regenerate me and give me the last boost of energy I needed to complete my run to the Finish Point.

Me having lots of fun !!!
Photo by Heiko Hampsink

Me running towards a very steep ascent 
After having left CP 3 and while I was feeling great and running fast, a horrible thought suddenly invaded my mind and made me think that I had taken the wrong route. I realised then that it had been a long time since I had seen the last pink arrow, and I was suddenly engulfed with fear that I had missed a turn. I took out the map but the more I looked at it, the more confused I got. I was quite convinced then that I had lost my way!!

The last pink arrow....
My long and lonely run...

...with only the fluffy clouds to keep me company!

Still lonely with no signs of arrow or other runners...

All of a sudden, I was feeling very hot and I continued running with very frustrating thoughts. The idea of running in the wrong direction made me crazy. Despite that, the stubbornness in me did not stir me to turn back and instead, it kept me running further ahead, hoping for a miracle. I ran what felt like an endless 3km, fighting with my negative thoughts before I spotted Heiko with his video camera, just a few metres before the Finish Point! What a HUGE relief! Finally, I was able to breathe and feel comfortable again.

My HUGE relief at seeing Heiko !!!
I finished first again and gained a bigger time difference from Marius (30’) who finished second. Asa Cowell (Malawi) finished third today, 67’ after me and Stephan finished fourth.

Finish Point of Stage 2
I had the same post-race ritual as yesterday; a lot of stretching, good rehydration and more Greek food for lunch. I found out later that the temperature had reached 50 Celcius earlier in the day but thanks to the low humidity, I did not feel the heat as much as it really was. Certainly, after having traumatised by the British weather, I did not dare complain about the heat lest I be cursed with having to deal with cold spells for the days to come.....

Had another good sleep after another delicious dinner. What more can I say?

STAGE 3- 42KM :

The amazing view from Race Village this morning
I was faced with a big dilemma today. With a 50’ advantage over Marius and with the repeated warnings from the organiser that the orientation was going to be trickier today than previous days, I was trying to make a decision whether to run alone and risk getting lost, or to run together with Marius? I knew that orienteering and self-navigation are my weak points and I will definitely run into the risk of getting lost if I did it on my own but at the same time, I hated the idea of having to change my pace and to lose the freedom of running alone just so that I can ‘’safe’’.

Me studying the map and contemplating on my strategy
I decided in the end to run with my heart, and after another fast start, I found myself to be at the end of a long track with a cul-de-sac!! Behind me, there was no one apart from some oryxes. I checked my watch and realised that I had run for 12km and CP 1 should already be seen from where I was. I was quite certain this time that I had missed a turn and taken the wrong way! All of my fears and anxieties of having lost my way from yesterday had finally come true today.

I felt very angry with myself and I turned back to retrace my steps, trying to find out how or when I missed the turn. After a few minutes, I came face-to-face with Charles Cartledge and Paul Gunner (both from England) who had taken the same route as me. I told them to turn back as that was not the right route and before long, we met a group of other runners coming our way and we all stopped to discuss and try to find the direction to the correct route.

Paul & Charles (England)
While we were in the midst of this chaotic situation, Lisa de Speville, a very experienced South African runner (with very good map-reading skills) appeared. She took out her map and according to her, we would have to take a right turn somewhere.

Lisa (South Africa)
By now exasperated and totally frustrated, I asked Charles to contact the organiser to find out the correct way. Terry responded by giving us some directions and we headed back towards the direction I had come from before. I decided to start running again ahead of the group, trying to look for the turn to the right which I had missed. At that point, I was already very stressed with the significant amount of time I had wasted and the extra kilometres I had unnecessarily run, and I was trying my hardest to reduce the ‘damage’ caused. While I was running furiously, I could hear the group calling out my name. They had found the missed turn which I had missed (again!!!) Thank God  I was still close enough to them to hear their warning. Without them, I would have been totally lost again and the race would have been all over for me!!

When I reached the point of the turn where I had missed, Lisa showed me the wooden stick with the pink arrow which had broken and fallen down, the main cause of all this confusion!! At that point I was so very angry I could feel my brain boiling!!! ! I could not believe that all the good and positive feelings I gained from the previous two stages had by then so swiftly been replaced with negative thoughts and disappointments. I honestly did not know what I should do and how I should carry on at that point. Out of a sudden, I lost all my motivation to continue with the race. While my mind was in this turmoil, my feet decided to make a decision for me and I began to run together with the group. I was completely silent and beside myself. I was also almost determined to give up the race there and then. Mentally drained and completely demotivated, I could not find any reason or strength to push myself to run a faster pace. Lost in my own thoughts and following the pace of the group in complete silence, I began to feel uncomfortable. Looking back at it now, I was sure that I have made the others felt uncomfortable too with my tense presence. Sorry guys, for being such an unpleasant company to you all that day!!

A very angry Me !!
I decided to leave the group and ran to CP 1 to find out how catastrophic this mess has caused me in terms of time difference from the other top 3 runners (Marius, Asa and Stephan) who had not lost their way. I had a big surprise awaiting me there, which changed my mind and mood entirely. Despite having ran an extra 8km and having wasted so much time together with the group looking for the right turn, I was informed that Marius was only 40’ ahead of me and Asa, 35’. Out of sudden, a new force of energy and motivation returned to my body and mind, and I started running my usual pace again, trying as hard as I can to reduce the gap between me, Marius and Asa.

I was still very angry with what had happened earlier but at the same time, I had nobody to blame, not even myself. At that point in time, I did not know how the sign had broken and fallen. I was also thinking, how, despite the sign not being there, the other 3 front runners had known where to turn and not me and the others? Why had the organiser not painted a nice bright pink arrow on the ground instead of putting up that wooden stick? So many angry thoughts were going through my mind at that time but I only found out all the answers after I had completed the race.

**I later found out from my wife (who had spent the whole uneventful day with Nel as she followed him around in his truck as the race photographer) that this incident had caused a lot of stress to the organiser and entire crew from the moment they received the distressed call from Charles. Terry and Nel were very upset that the race was marred by this unexpected incident and they were racing against time to go through the entire route to ensure that all the other signs (which had been put up the day before) had not been gnarled by hyeanas or knocked down by oryxes (which were the suspected culprits of the broken and fallen wooden arrows)!! Nel was tying extra pink ribbons and hammering extra wooden arrows unto the ground. And no, they were not allowed to paint any of the stones in any neutral colour let alone pink(?!!) because it was a natural reserved area. A single discarded piece of rubbish and any signs of tyre track off the designated tracks will ensure that the precious permit given for the race be immediately revoked and withdrawn!!**

Behind the scene: A frantic Nel preparing extra wooden arrow signs

...and tying extra pink ribbons!!
Now, I would not know all these at that point when I was running with my brain boiling at full heat, would I?

So, there I was, running like a possessed man, ignoring everyone and everything along the route, including my poor wife!! The scenery was completely boring for me today, probably it was due to my bad mood. I lost the ability to enjoy the race like I did in the past 2 days and I was just running mechanically like a robot to try to reduce the gap.

The oryxes which I ignored...(how could I??)
The ostriches, which I ALSO ignored!

Me, running like a possessed man, ignoring Nel & Hannisze who were following me!!

After a while, I met Stephan, the nice, ‘crazy’ German guy who was doing this race for the second time. We (even he himself) called him ‘crazy’ because he ran this race carrying all his equipment and daily food ration in his rucksack every day even though that was not required by the organiser. He never joined us for our delicious dinners, opting instead for his Austrian sausages and his powder meals!! In addition, he ran with a big German flag sticking out from the back of his rucksack, which must have added more weight and difficulty to his pace, although we all admit that with that flag of his, he always ended up with the best photographs!!

A picture-perfect Stephan Pirl. See what I mean? 

I overtook Stephan and not long after that, I reached CP 2. The first thing I did upon reaching there was to check the time difference between me, Marius and Asa. I found out that in the last 15km, I had managed to gain another 10’ from Marius, reducing the gap to 30’. I was also coming closer to Asa, the gap now being 20’.

CP 2 : where I got the latest news

Feeling more motivated that ever with this new piece of information, I pushed my body further to the same fast pace while the temperature of the day was getting higher and the scenery, more boring. The route was taking me across a long, flat area without any proper track, with only a white NDC flag in the far distance as my only point of orientation.

A very determined Me soldering on to reduce the gap

I was trying hard to see whether I can spot either Marius or Asa in front of me but I could not.

Marius (South Africa)

Asa (Malawi)
My skin got punctured by thorny bushes many times today and that made me even madder. After what seemed like ages, I finally reached the last CP, about 6km before the Finish Point, where Nel and my wife were already waiting for me.

The crew at CP 3 searching for me in the horizon

Me approaching CP 3
As if having been cued by my wife (who was very familiar with my temperament by now), Nel was very quick to inform me that the gap between me and Marius was only 19’ and Asa, 7. A huge relief came over me after hearing this and it immediately brought peace against my frustrations. My only priority now was just to maintain this time difference and to cross the finish line. I was not happy to push my body any further. Mentally, I was drained. The day had started off badly for me and I only wanted to make it to the Finish and to try and get rid of all the bad and negative thoughts.

Nel pointing me to the right direction
After 6 hot and endless kilometres, I finished the stage with mixed feelings. I tried to be calm and to control my anger, because at the end of the day, nothing catastrophic has happened from the unfortunate incident. I reminded myself that despite having lost my way, I was still really blessed to be close enough to my other fellow runners who had gathered around me to give me their precious help and to bring me back to the right track when I almost went the wrong way again the second time round. With this in mind, I started to think of the positive sides of things and count my blessings instead of mulling over the negative aspects and being pathetic!! I started chatting to everyone at the Finish Point and I could see that Nel was relieved and happier than everyone else that this stage has ended not too bad for me, after all the stress he had gone through the entire morning!

Finish of Stage 3

Me at Finish of Stage 3

Marius & Asa at Finish of Stage 3
As I tried to relax under the shade at the Finish Point, a few things happened which further lent weight to affirm that the day was definitely not a good one for me. The chair which I first sat on broke down all of a sudden and my butt went through the torn canvas and was just inches above the ground. Everyone was laughing at me and Mike Chart, a nice volunteer, helped me out of the broken chair and kindly offered me another one. After sitting on the second chair for a few minutes, one of the banners of the race fell on my head. Although it did not cause any real damage to my already over-boiled (and probably burnt) brain, it went on to confirm that the day was definitely a disastrous one for me. And as if these latest incidents were not enough to confirm that, the second chair which I sat on also broke (!!!!), despite my ‘decent’ light weight of only 65kg!!!

After this latest unfortunate incident, I got the message that the CP was not safe for me and I headed for where I thought was the safest, ie. my tent. Once back at the Race Village, I started deleting all the bad memories of this damned day from my over-boiled brain.

By dinner time, all was well again. The delicious dinner injected all the good feelings back in me and I managed to finish FOUR gorgeous steaks of springbok all by myself!!! What a day it had been for me. Let’s hope there will be no repetition of this for the remaining days to come!

STAGE 4 – 52 KM :

The stunning view from our Race Village this morning
All the bad moments from yesterday have by now, been removed from my memory, and I was again up and ready to give in all my best. I was planning to run as fast as possible today even though I have a 35’ of advantage over Marius. The organiser informed us that the routes for today and the following day was going to be exciting, covering all the highlights of the National Park. In both these days, I will get to fulfil my dream of climbing the highest sand dune of the world and crossing a dead valley with dried river bed.

We started from the Race Village itself for this stage and after crossing the gate into the National Park, we reached the Sesriem Canyon. This is a narrow fissure in the sandstone, 30m deep in places, carved by the Tsauchab River. It was used by the early settlers, who drew water from it, by knotting together six lengths of hide rope (called riems). Hence it became known as “ses riems”.

Leaving the Start Point at Race Village 

Crossing the gate to the National Park with tourist buses at the back

Running through amazing scenery towards the Canyon

During the previous edition of NDC, this area was hit with very heavy rain and the canyon was filled with water. Due to this, the crossing of the Canyon had to be cancelled. This year, it has been very dry and the canyon was without any trace of water. This allowed us to run through the amazing place and we were offered the rare opportunity to admire another wonder of nature. The terrain was very technical with big river cobbles, extremely dangerous for getting sprains. However, I was under the effect of high adrenaline and was unable to slow down my pace.

The dry Sesriem Canyon

Me running through the floor of the Canyon

A wider /higher view
Before one hour of running, I had already passed CP 1 which led me out of the canyon to a nice, hard terrain which allowed me to increase my pace.

Hard, flat terrain after CP 1

Me gaining speed

A wild fox looking down at me :-)

A happier Me 

Nel and my wife, who overtook me with their truck were teasing me and asking me to slow down. Not any chance!! I was feeling superb and strong.

Me refusing to slow down
Very soon, I reached the main road of the National Park heading from Sesriem to Sossusvlei. We were told that we could choose to run either on the tarmac or the dirt track beside it. I went for the asphalt to maintain my pace of 5’/km. Despite it being hard and not very comfortable for the knees, the view of the sand dunes ridge on my right and the Naukluft Mountains on the left, made me forget my discomfort.

Main road to National Park

Sand dunes on my right

After about 11km on the asphalt, I reached CP 3 where I left the asphalt, turning to the right for a nice dirt track flanked by more huge dunes.

Dirt track after leaving asphalt

Huge dunes to both sides of track

What a wonderful feeling!!

I took time to admire the scenery which I have been dreaming of for months before coming to this race. Enormous apricot-coloured dunes with gracefully carved ridges unfolded before my eyes and photogenic oryxes hid themselves under the feathery acacia trees. What a moment that was for me!!! I was extremely happy and excited at the same time. A couple of oryxes were dashing just 50 metres ahead of me and that served as a challenge for me to speed up my pace.

After an unforgettable run of 10km, I reached the last CP and again, Nel was there to ensure that I did not make another navigational mistake. He informed me that for the next 6km, there will not be any track or sign of navigation. The only thing that I had to do was to run towards a direction that he had pointed out, marked by the shape of a big sand dune. In theory, after 6km I will find the main road which I had ran on earlier in the stage.

The last CP, located at the base of a huge dune!!

Me approaching the last CP

As you can, I was feeling very different from how I was yesterday

Doing a silly jump...

...and another one!!

Dashing to the CP...

Refuelling time...

Nel giving me the direction.
With that, I dashed off from the CP and was greeted by another exciting terrain. Dead black trees began to appear ahead of me, on a river bed which had got so dry in the course of the years that nothing could grow on them anymore.

Me dashing off after the CP

The silhouettes of the lonely black trees against the orange dunes and the infinite blue sky created such an amazing contrast in colours that I was totally in awe of the whole vision before me. I could not believe that this picture-perfect scenery, the quintessential Namib Desert scene which I had so often seen in travel magazines and postcards,   was actually real, right there before my eyes!!

Dead tree trunk against sand dune

 For first time today, I decided to slow down to take in the view and to enjoy my presence in this amazing wonder of nature. The heat was getting stronger by now but I had no cause for complaint. I was living my dream - running completely alone in such an isolated wild landscape, with my eyes wide opened to capture and remember as much of this unique moment as I possibly could!

I found my way back to the road and met Terry, who was there to ensure that I took a right turn which would eventually lead me to the Finish. By now, there were only 6 more kilometres before the end of the stage and I was running on tarmac again. Tourists in cars and buses were giving me encouragement as they drove past me. I was still so absorbed in replaying the magical scenes which I had just seen moments ago that I totally forgot that my run in this stage was going to finish very soon...!

The tarmac leading to the Finish - huge dunes everywhere!!

Finish of Stage 4 - Dune 45 on the right 
Finish of Stage 4 - Dune 45 on the right 

Finish of Stage 4 - at the base of Dune 45. Waterpoint under the tree  

When I neared the NDC flags at the Finish Point, I saw a group of about 20 people clapping and cheering at the waterpoint under the shady tree. So, I ran towards them, but I then heard Nel shouting at me from the flags and telling me to run to him instead. Needless to say, I was a little confused!! I was so looking forward to having a nice cup of iced tea under the shade.

Yeay!! A close-up which looks like I was running towards the right direction

A frantic Nel shouting at me : "Argy, come here NOT there!!!"

Me heading up to Nel...
Nel and Terry reminded me that the run had not quite finished for me yet. The ‘only’ thing that I still had to do was to climb up the big Dune 45, ran across the ridge and climbed a little more to the NDC flag which they had put up there and come back down.

So, I mustered the last source of energy in me to run against the slope of the dune, one of the most photogenic dunes of the National Park and did as I was told.

Upon reaching the summit, I spent about one minute or so to admire the beauty of the surrounding area and to hear the sounds of the desert. I was struggling a little with my emotions to tear myself away there for my descent down the dune.

Not quite there yet!!

Me running across the ridge (with Heiko waiting ahead)
Me running further up to the NDC flag!! Almost there...

I started an unforgettable slalom down the soft and slippery steep slope and the feeling of ‘freedom’ which came with that was really an unforgettable one!!


I crossed the finish line and was engulfed in bear hugs with Terry, Nel and the other volunteers who had gathered there. I repeatedly thank them for this rare opportunity which helped me realise yet another of my many dreams. I was so moved and touched by the natural beauty of today’s route. Although the route consisted of 16km on the tarmac, I had the feeling that I was running in a wild and remote place. Marius finished 35’ after me, making my advantage over him a solid 1:10’.

Terry, Me, Nel, Paul & our trusted driver, Mattheus
Soon, a group of us who had finished were gathered under the shade of the tree and were relaxing and sharing our emotions of the day, what we have seen, how we had run...etc. After more than 3 hours of talking, stretching, drinking and eating and while I was thinking of getting on the bus to head back to the Race Village, I noticed that one of the runners who had just came in, Joseph Tineyi Machokoto, from Botswana, was not feeling too well. He told me he did not feel well enough to climb Dune 45. I explained to him that it is only a small climb and gave him some encouragement to complete the stage when he had come so far and was so near the end of it.

He started reluctantly. Initially, I saw him taking small and slow steps but as the slope got steeper, he suddenly turned around and decided to give up and come back down without reaching the summit, thus risking being disqualified!!

Joseph  (Botswana)

All of us shouted to him, asking him not to come down, not to surrender. He did not look at us and seemed to not have heard us at all. We saw him slowly descending from the dune. Without a second thought, I grabbed my hat and decided to run up to him and try to make him change his mind.

Another three guys, Steven Levitas (a volunteer), Mark Tibshraeny (one of Joseph’s mate from Botswana) and a staff from the Lodge, joined me in my attempt to convince Joseph to continue to the summit. Initially, he was adamant to not go on. He looked hypoglycaemic, pale and completely drained of energy. I tried my best to convince him that if he gives up then, he will regret his decision later, when he has fully recovered. I also emphasized to him how wasted and unfair it would be for him to give up the race at the last km after having run for more than 8 hours.

Thank God he became less resistant to my encouragement, changed his mind and turned upward again, ready to climb the last steep meters of the dune. All 5 of us ascended together and once we reached the summit, we took a small rest and ran down the dune together, save for Mark, who had decided to accompany David Abdo (South Africa), another one of their mates who had just ascended the dune after us. 

We ran the last few metres of the steep descent by holding hands together and celebrated this magical moment with the cheers and whistles from the others on the ground. This will be one of the few most memorable moments which I took away with me from this amazing race - where a Runner overcame his own limits with the solidarity and support of his fellow runners.

STAGE 5 -28 KM :

I had very mixed feelings today, being the last stage of the race. I reflected on how I had felt at the last stages of my previous races at the MDS, AC and AAUT. Back then, I was feeling SO relieved to finish those last stages so that I could go back to all the comforts awaiting me.

This time at the NDC, however, was very different. My body felt superb even after 4 days of continuous running, and mentally, I was still fresh and not drained. In fact, I was still capable and opened for more run!!

At the Start Point, I found myself thinking that I could and would be able to carry on running for another week at this amazing place. I have never enjoyed running so much as I did this time and I concluded that the reason for that was made up of probably by a combination of many things.

Start Point for Stage 5

Quiet contemplation : moody Me
Most likely, I felt less pressure from the other front runners this time than I did in all my previous mentioned races. The high standards of utilities and comfort at our Race Village also played a big part in making this whole experience such a great one for me (clean showers and toilets with 5-star dinner every night). Of course, there was also the spectacular, magnificent, out-of-this-world, unique scenery (and the occasional encounters with wildlife!) which were constantly accompanying me throughout the duration of the race.

There was also the fact that after completing this, the countdown will start for my return to my daily routine and work.

No more magical sunrises and sunsets.
No more scents and visions of the desert.
No more sleeping in the tent, whispering with my wife and listening to the sounds of wild animals.
No more sand dunes.

It is surprising how easy it is for one to find happiness and satisfaction in so many small and basic things.

With all these thoughts in my mind, I decided that I would run slower in this last stage and enjoy every single moment of it as if it was the last run of my life!! I joined Marius, Asa, Stephan and Paul at their pace and for the first time at the race, I was running and talking with my fellow runners. After a few kilometres into the run, we met my wife, who had waited patiently to get a photo of us all. I asked the guys to make a jump together, to prove that we were still young at heart. Hannisze managed to capture us floating in the air at the precise moment, giving us another unforgettable photographic memory to bring back with us to Europe.

Marius, Asa, Paul, Stephan & Me!! My wife called us the 'Big Five' :-)
I checked my heart rate after this encounter and it was only 135. A long straight route led us to the base of a steep sand dune for us to climb. We tried to avoid the steep parts but it was so demanding, if not impossible, to keep one’s balance on a slippery, steep, slope of a sand dune. When we reached the summit, another magical view appeared before our eyes in the horizon. The famous Hidden Vlei  was there, waiting for us. We started running down the sand dune and arrived at a valley with white, hard, dry terrain with many old dead acacia trees.

Marius, Asa and I passed the first and last check points together and started the next 2 km which would eventually bring us to the biggest challenge of the race....THE BIG DADDY! This is the highest sand dune (300m) of the world. As we got closer to this magnificent thing ahead of us, we were struck dumb by the degree of the vertical ascend awaiting us. What an emotion!! Simply indescribable!!

Big Daddy : Photo by Heiko Hampsink

Big Daddy : Photo by Heiko Hampsink

Marius led the way and Asa and I followed his steps slowly and steadily. I stopped now and again to look around me and to admire the vast, opened views of the desert. 

Approaching Big Daddy : Photo by Heiko Hampsink

Approaching Big Daddy : Photo by Heiko Hampsink

After arriving at the top of the dune, another magical view appeared in front of us - the famous Dead Vlei, an old pan with merely skeletons of tree, some of them said to be over 500 years old!! It was one of the most starkly beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. The only way for us to explore this wonder (at that point in time), was to run down the 300m of 50 degrees vertical slope. What a total, awesome, bliss!! I would love having a pair of skis with me to do just a few slaloms on this thin, golden sand!

Paul and a Lodge crew waiting for us at the base of Big Daddy

A very eerie Dead Vlei

After an exhilarating descent, we ‘landed’ on Dead Vlei. Marius and I began to run slowly, with me looking around this ghostly, eerie place. The high temperature by now, was intense and small groups of tourists who had gathered there were all taken by surprise at seeing a group of crazy/mad runners in this remote area. They looked at us strangely and I felt like I was a strange exhibit in a museum. Some started clicking their cameras.

The Lodge crew and Paul Ramncwana ( a volunteer), were waiting for us (under no proper shade) with some cold water. One of the crew, a local who worked at the Lodge, naughtily challenged me by running very fast ahead of me in his quest to show us the right direction out from Dead Vlei. Around this time, my poor wife had just arrived from the other side of Dead Vlei after having climbed over many sand dunes with 2 heavy cameras. She managed to get a few photos of me but was frustrated that she had missed me at the Big Daddy proper!!!

Me leaving Dead Vlei 
A 'flying' crew with me and Big Daddy in the background!!

I decided to follow the fast pace set by the Lodge’s staff but after 500m he gave up, showing me the right direction instead, for me to carry on. I knew I was very near the end and so, I did what I always did at the end of each race and took out my Greek flag as I ran through the last glorious moments of this unbelievably amazing race. Some tourists began to clap and cheer me on, shouting ‘’Greece!! Greece!!’’ and with this encouragement, as always, more adrenaline was automatically pumped into my body and I began to fly to the finish.

Terry and Nel were already waiting for the runners at the finish line, with the worthy medal which they hung on my neck. Strong hugs followed, symbolising our union and mutual respect for one another after all we had gone through together during this race. I thanked them once again and told them what a great job they had done. Sometimes, I really wonder what drives so many nice guys/organisers around the world to put so much energy, effort, money and time, to make crazy runners like us happy.

Me at the Finish

Me at the Finish
Only 1:30’’ later, Marius arrived, as excited and as happy as I had been. I have spent many moments with Marius in the past few days and find him to be a very nice guy and talented runner. A personal trainer by profession, he has participated in many different races in South Africa. We spent many hours together sharing opinions regarding running and life and I definitely hope to meet up with him again one day. He promised to introduce me to the beautiful trails of Cape Town where he is living and training!

7’ later, Asa arrived. He is another nice guy, always lively and so full of humour. He lives in Malawi and told me that he is trying to find the right balance between family/professional commitments and run. It was his first time running a race like this and definitely, judging from his fierce determination, I can see him doing many more great challenges like this.

It is so difficult for me to mention all the people I have met and became friends with at this race. Due to our small number, it was easy for us to get to know one another under the big Communal Tent and we had the opportunity to confirm of how beautiful the community of runners are, all of us sharing the same passion for life and adventure.

Me and my wife, Hannisze, at the Finish
Photo by : Heiko Hampsink

When all the runners had finally arrived at the Finish, we were transported back to Race Village to collect our belongings, to be further transferred to the very comfortable Sossusvlei Lodge, where we would stay for the night.

We were told to scrub up well and gather at the Conference Room at 18:30 for a slide show presentation of all the photos and video clips taken during the race. Every one of us enjoyed seeing ourselves being ‘captured’ and a rush of emotions came over me. I could not believe that this amazing journey had already ended for me!!

After the presentation, we were all bundled up in separate ‘safari trucks’ and told that we were going for a night game drive. Oh! It was so good to be driven out there in pitch darkness. The gentle evening breeze made the drive such a pleasant one and we were just under this huge canopy of sky which was full with millions of stars!! We were driven to somewhere in the middle of nowhere and when trucks finally stopped, we were asked us to get down and walk for about 200 metres. We passed a gigantic huge pile of rocks and walked around it and suddenly, right there, after the turn, was an amazing outdoor restaurant set up especially for us by the thoughtful organiser, with a huge fire right in the middle and long tables already set up with all kinds of delicacies. We were greeted by the Lodge’s staff who had prepared all this for us and the chef then proceeded to explain to us what he had in store for us.

The organiser and crew springing the surprise on us

The scrubbed-up runners :-)
The Lodge's staff and the opened fire

The long table where food was served

Food cooked and kept warm over opened fire

All of us digging in :-))!!

The chef ensuring that all was good enough for us!

So, it was right there, in the middle of one of the most beautiful deserts in the world, that all of us runners, volunteers and the organiser had our last dinner together, under the most starry sky I have ever seen!! My newfound good friend from Botswana, Warren Briggs, even showed me the Milky Way! Once again, there was an abundant selection of game-meat for us, cooked on the spot to our own liking by the chef at hand, fresh salads and desserts, with fantastic South African wines to wash it all down.

Now that I have let this 'secret' out of the bag, with accompanying photos as well, the organiser will have to think of another surprise for the next editions to come :-)! Sorry, guys!!

For me, this is definitely a race I would gladly come back again to run, despite my principle of never running a race twice.

I cannot thank the organiser (Terry and Nel) enough, for making this dream of mine come true – the ability to run at places which I would never had the chance to do so even if I offer to pay for it. I also wish to thank the amazing crew from the Sossusvlei Lodge (Sorry I did not get all your names although I will remember all your smiling faces for the rest of my life) who had all done such a fabulous job in setting up and dismantling the check points each day and for the food, drinks and ice which they have prepared for us;  to the volunteers (Heiko for your video, Paul, Steven and Mike for your constant smile and encouragement); to all my crazy/mad fellow runners – for sharing this amazing experience with me – every one of you are unique and all of you have contributed in your own ways in making this race an unforgettable one for me. I shall be missing all the hours spent with you guys chatting and eating under the Communal Tent!

Last but not least, I thank my adorable wife, who once again, did her very best in giving me her full support and constant companionship. This time, she almost single-handedly covered the photography of the entire race, supporting an already over-worked Heiko. She spent as many hours in the desert as I did if not more. By the end of this race, I realised how physically strong a person she can be and how good she is at multi-tasking. Thank you so much, Babe!! None of this would have been feasible for me without your priceless support.

I really hope to do this race again someday and how very wonderful it will be if I can do it together with some of my friends!! Good things are meant to be shared and this is one race which I will highly recommend to all runners out there!

More photos taken by wife at this amazing race can be viewed from her Facebook Page at :

My next adventure will be the Western States Endurance Run in California and I will begin my training after a 2 weeks’ rest.


  1. As always, a nice human race report!!

    One more life experience added hoping that race by race you are becoming a better Man!!

    Thank you Argiris and looking forward in sharing a trail workout together back Home!!

    Christos D. Katsanos

    1. Christos, thanks for your kind words.
      We will definitely run on the Greek Trails together very soon.

  2. Brilliant argi.what a fair summary on this great event. Please dont forget I did manage to beat you but only once!!!

    1. Thanks Asa!Please....don't remind me of THAT day, where I tried but failed to chase the Malawian Lion in you :-)

  3. Hi Argy just went through your race with you on your blog it made me laugh and also me me cry. AN EMOTIONAL RUN FOR YOU AND I'M SURE FOR HANNIS and an emotional read for me. So glad I read it. So glad you and Hannis love your new home. Here's to more fantastic races for you to run and enjoy.

  4. So glad I read your blog what a fantastic race for you. I laughed and also cried at your comments about your friends and your lovely wife Hannis. Also your wonderful descriptions and photos of the race. Here's to many more races for you to run and enjoy. Hope Croft House is everything you hoped it would be.