Day 1 of the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon – people dropping from the heat!

{This is my Kalahari ultramarathon report originally published on SleepMonsters. For an overview of what this one-week race is, check out my previous post] “This year will be the real race,” RD Estienne Arndt said to me at the start line. He was referring to last year’s KAEM, when racers didn’t get the full Kalahari Desert experience due to unseasonably cool temperatures and even a few days of rain. In contrast, today’s temperatures were predicted to sit around the mid 40s (well above 100 F), and those conditions are expected to hold for the entire week.

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Dave and me at the start line.

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And we’re off! Mostly dirt roads, but some cross-country.

It was already very hot as 70 of us set off from the start line at 9am. Starts for the rest of the week will be earlier. Today’s route was by far the easiest route of the week, though – only 25 km, with little elevation gain, rising 100 m over the first half then dropping 200 m over the second half. Those elevation changes may seem trivial to you, but out here in the sun they translate to serious issues of heat management. Even a tiny uphill raises your body temperature, so having the gentle downhill for the later (and hottest) part of the route was a very good thing.

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The group is not too spread out yet. Many of us taking it very easy because of the heat.

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Approaching our first aid station!

Aid stations were around 8 km apart, so there were two along the route before the finish. Dave and I had been advised to take this day as a training day, and to acclimatize, and we took that seriously. We were well down towards the back of the pack, but we managed ourselves really well. We made the first aid station in around 1:20, so managed to sustain a decent jog/walk pace. Shortly after, we passed a pair of guys from Austria, Josef and Ambros. Josef was obviously in trouble, having knee issues. As we approached the second aid station, Ambros caught up with us jogging, and told us that Josef had dropped out. Shortly after, we passed a 4WD with some of the medical crew, giving a woman an IV.

Less than 10% into this race, and already conditions were taking their toll.

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We did run a bit – but mostly we took it very slow.

The route, however, was spectacular – in some places due to the starkness, wide open plains with a few sparsely scattered shrubs. In other areas, traversing rounded granite outcrops, winding our way through dry stream beds (soft sand and no wind, VERY hot but very pretty) and over bare rock hills. We were especially thrilled to see a herd of five giraffe a short distance from the track, less than an hour from the start.

Dave and I kept up our very conservative and relaxed pace. The heat was affecting Dave quite a bit, so we took our time at the second aid station, giving him a chance to cool down. The volunteers here are amazing, many them who have come back many times over the years.

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Dave is not looking his best.

It was noon when we left this aid station, and Dave was having a lot of trouble keeping his body temperature down, so we stopped a few times for him to try to cool down. It’s hard to find a good place to stop – the low hilltops had a good breeze but no shade, and the shrubby trees were located only in the dry river beds – stiflingly hot and sandy, and no breeze at all.

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Nice scenery – when we remembered to enjoy it!

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Dave wasn’t sure he would be able to finish the race at this point…

The last part of the route followed a very hot and narrow dry stream bed, enclosed by rock walls. We rounded a spectacular gap flanked by giant granite boulders, and there was Camp 1 set up – most of the field already here, relaxing in the shade in the gazebos. The temperature here in the shade was 48C, which means out there in the sun and on the hot sun it must have been well into the 50s.

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Wejust rounded this boulder – and there was camp! Phew!

That heat definitely took its toll. I don’t have any final results or info, but I heard upon my arrival that 4 racers had pulled out so far. Ambros, in the next gazebo over from me, has been wailing with insufferable cramps, and got carted away by the medical crew for an IV. (Rules here are that you are allowed one IV – if you need a second, you are out).

Edward Chapman of the UK, here for his ninth time, was still well behind us. When he came in, after 6 hours on the course, he expressed concern for his friend Michelle. He had been feeling unwell and had stopped in the shade, so she should be ahead of him – but she had never arrived. Estienne immediately sent out a search crew. As I am writing this, Estienne has just returned to say that they found Michelle unconscious on the track several km out from here, so she also is out.

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This is what camp looks like. And what we do here.

He has also informed us that the route will be altered tomorrow because of this heat. The distance will remain the same, but the section between CP2 and CP3 will be changed from “Death Valley” which has no vehicle access, to a more road-accessible route. As Estienne put it, if any other people drop from heat stroke, he needs to be able to get to them quickly by vehicle. I am really glad that they have such excellent safety procedures in place here – it was really clear to all of us today that the heat can kill very quickly, if you end up off track and run out of water.

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