Event diary: The 2023 Desert Ultra

Two men walking in a hot rocky landscape.
Save the Rhino Patron, Kenneth Donaldson, recently completed a 250 km desert ultra marathon across Namibia, raising more than £2,000! Below is Kenneth’s blog about the incredible (and very hot!) test of endurance. 


This was hard. My mate Oli said “250 km across the desert, you’ve done that before”, but this was hard. Way beyond previous multi-day ultras – this was cleverly and deliberately designed to be punishing; soften you up with body punches in the early rounds with a knockout in the fifth. But enough whinging, let’s start at the beginning.

Part 1. Into the desert

We’d arrived in Namibia, a long flight from more or less anywhere, and congregated in Windhoek. Twenty-seven nervous people, stressing endlessly about kit, a legitimate displacement activity so as not to stress about running long days in searing heat. Your kit is a large part of what might get you through this and it’s a trade-off between weight on the one hand and comfort and calories on the other. You can’t have it all.

We’re herded onto a bus and drive North West for hours to a carefully chosen spot in the middle of absolutely nowhere, near Spitzkoppe Mountain; the start line and site of our first camp. It’s beautiful. Desert sands, mountains in the background, occasional pieces of scrubby vegetation. Jaw-dropping sunset. I adore this scenery. And there in the middle of desert we find Riana and her husband Nico. Riana is the first Namibian woman to give this race a go, and she makes us 28 on the start line.

Part 2. Ready, steady, GO!

This day one, stage one, and we are OFF! It’s 07:30 and the sun’s been up for a good hour or so, the temperature has yet to hit high, and we are all super-excited that finally, finally, finally, this hour has arrived.

We charge off in a cloud of dust. Adam’s (the Race Director) race instruction for this first day is more or less as follows. “Do you see on the horizon the gap between two large hills? Run to it any way you like. When you get to the gap you’ll find Checkpoint (CP) one at 14 km. From there, the trail to the next CP will be marked by flags. All CPs from there on will be marked by flags. This stage has four CPs and the total distance is 51kms. Good luck”.I start out running side-by-side with Ellie. Ellie is a large part of the reason I am here at all. We sort of dared each other to do this, I’ll sign up if you do, sort of thing. Then sign up she did, for her very first multi-day ultramarathon, so I followed suit and here we were. Running in the desert. Wow.

We have a lovely run together to that first CP1. We see a desert hare. We manage to lose sight of the two hills in a dip. It’s no big deal, but you do quickly get the sense that should you become disorientated, things could go pear-shaped fast.

Ellie and I leave the CP together and continue on, but soon enough she’s pulled away from me, and this will be the only time in the race that I have the honour of running with her. Run your own race, is the rule.

The temperature kept rising. The miles passed. Slowly and surely we moved through the ancient landscape of the Kunene Region or Damaraland.

Finally, the flag to mark the camp appears and I peel off and collapse on a seat to have water sprayed over me to get my core temperature back to something approaching human. I have had a good day out there, enjoyed it all, but that last 10 km was tough. 52 km down, many to go.

The few behind me filter in over the next couple of hours. Respect to them, all those extra hours out in the heat on your feet. It’s a tough choice and for me running at least some of it is the only way to cope.

Part 3. Day 2. And repeat.

This race is hard.

No let up, another 50+ km day. It’s a really daunting prospect. The classic marathon is 42 km and it hurts enough. The extra 10 km or so on top really hurts. It sure hurt yesterday, really took a toll on a lot of us. I am actually not too bad, enjoyed it, didn’t pick up any blisters, just a bit of a raw back from something rubbing.

Three, two, one, go! We run out for day two with the start cruelly shifted back 30 minutes to 08:00. Yesterday I got in at 16:30 with time to cool down, rinse my legs and body of salt, clean my feet, drink some tea, eat freeze-dried food and some peanuts, drink yet more tea and then ollapse into my tent. Today I will have at least 30 minutes less to do all of that.

I come to CP3 around 14:00 and it’s stinking hot. Each CP has at least a couple of people, always smiling and cheering for you and ready to refill your bottles. I am carrying three litres of water when I leave a checkpoint, which should last a couple of hours (until the next CP) in heat in the mid-40s. This race is a process.

I finally got in at 17:30, so it took me 9.5 hours, 30 minutes longer than the previous day’s 50. Ablutions, supper, and other bits of personal admin all seemed that little bit more rushed. And so to bed. I headed for my tent and found my tentmate was already flat on his back recovering from his day’s exertions. Craig is a lovely fellow, who tells me he’s a gardener but with a family interest in a car manufacturer. This is his first ultra. I could not ask for a better tent mate. However, neither of us slept well as it was still very warm at night, all night, and I would lie in just a silk sleeping-bag liner and gaze at the miraculous star display above.

Part 4. Day 3 – 51 degrees or more

Blessedly day three is a bit shorter, at 42 km. Just the standard marathon then. Should leave more room at the end of the day for personal admin as it’s euphemistically called; the process of getting salt and dirt out of all the cracks and gaps, nooks and crannies, ensuring your kit is ship-shape, etc. Failure to attend to personal admin in a race like this means almost certain failure.

Hot water is on from 06:00, so Craig and I arose at 05:30 to start the ballet of rolling down sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses, pulling on your race clothes – yuuuegch – beating your socks into some form of flexibility, and so on. Ablutions and then breakfast, which for Craig was in powdered form and for me was a large bowl of salted porridge followed by a large bowl or two of tea.

Then from 07:00, it was the Medics’ Clinic. James came to see me, and this time I did have some blisters on the underside of my foot that he gracefully agreed to patch up. He is a paramedic in real life, and has a great air of calmness and authority about him.

“Shorter today!”, Adam cheerfully announces at the race briefing before we set out, but no easier. “You’ll be running through soft sand up a dry riverbed for the first 15 km”. He tells us this with his usual massive smile. I feel less than fully cheered by this happy news, I had been looking forward to a slightly less punishing day. Not to be…

CP1 passes, and so do the clouds. Now the heat is crushing and there’s not a whisper of wind. It’s harder and harder to breathe. The trail finally comes away from the riverbed and meanders uphill. Every time you get to the crest, it’s a false summit, and upwards you go. For ever. No wind. I cannot begin to tell you how hard that segment of the race was. I get into CP3 finally, and collapse into a seat. It takes me a whole 45 minutes just to get my core temperature down to something close to the human range.

Part 5. Elephants

Eventually, hours and hours later, I get to within 100 m of camp and I hear a voice commanding me to stop. Gert. The man who runs our basecamps, along with his wife Alda. Gert says there’s elephant nearby. I stop. I am desperate to get to the shade of the camp. He says ok, go slowly, I will follow, if I tell you to get in the car, do so immediately. I nod. We set off. And finally, I make it to the others who are reclining on mats in the shade and who cheer me in, as I will cheer in those who are behind me.

I am told it hit 51 degrees that day. I believe it. Some of the crew say it was 53, but whatever, it was the absence of any breeze whatsoever that did the real damage.

The elephants were indeed around. That evening, just at last light, they appeared at the far side of the dry riverbed. Silent, majestic, all the old cliches, but they’re true. Alas I saw none of it, as someone persuaded me to swallow a magnesium pill that induced a spectacular gag reflex and I lost most of my evening meal. Valuable calories in the sand. James came over to sit with me, got me to drink a load of electrolytes, eventually pronounced me fit to continue in the morning. I was peeing all night as result, on the hour. Tedious. Which makes it all the more extraordinary I managed to miss the drama; all Craig and I heard from our tent were the elephants trumpeting loudly at midnight, they seemed to be right outside the door. Bit close, said Craig. They never trample tents, I said rather more confidently than I felt. Sleep well.

Part 6. The short day, ha ha.

Adam chirps around the start line, perfect hair, perfect teeth, smile fully glued on. In fairness, he’s not just the Race Director, he has also run it and actually holds the course record. Bet he smiled throughout that too. Unreal. “We’ll start at 11:30, only 23 km, gently upwards for the first half, then flat(ish), good luck.” 11:30. It was 51 degrees yesterday by then; today, it feels hotter if anything. Oh boy.

At least the late start gives me a chance to stuff in extra calories to make up for the ones I vomited out.

The first two km are soft sand, then up it does indeed go. Up and up, on and on. No wind again. Jeeezo. No one said this was going to be easy but… Why whinge, I knew this was going to be hard, I feel fine (if dog tired).

I get to CP1 and it’s clear a lot of people are really struggling with this short, so-called ‘easy’ stage. I have a decent break as I am in no rush and head out. It blows hard around the crest of the hill, but away from it the wind mysteriously disappears. No wind. Heat in the high 40s. The desert shimmers.

I see a figure in pink and white in front of me and it’s Katherine. She’s stock still a little off the path and it’s clear something’s up. I head over. She’s a bit tearful. “I am having a panic attack, I can’t breathe, I have tried to send a message on the tracker, but I can’t see how to work it.” I tell her it’s ok, she’s with friends, she’s going to be fine, take time, take a drink, breath slowly. Jules, an airline pilot with a nice dry wit turns up. We wait together while Katherine’s breathing normalises. Then, like a miracle, a car appears on the horizon and Nico’s with us in minutes, out the car and showering Katherine with water. The effect is miraculous. She cools down, straightens up and heads off. Jules and I walk with her to CP2. She’s off out of there long before me, for the final three km into the basecamp.

As I recover in CP2, getting my heat down again, Jenny appears from the desert. Jenny’s another one who had a really really tough day one. It’s her first Ultra too. She’s a round-the-world yachtswoman, and I know her from other Beyond the Ultimate races, as she’s a key member of the team. Jenny is always smiling, she’s got a smile that takes kilometres off a race, but there’s been something rather subdued about her smile in this race. And – marvellously – as she comes into CP2 to join me – I see that the proper Jenny smile is back. She’s finally on an upwards trajectory and starting to enjoy it, going from strength to strength.

And she too is out of the CP before me. I finally totter off, still in no hurry today, and soon enough come into the final basecamp before the Big Day, the dreaded Stage five.

The chat that evening is all about what lies ahead tomorrow. 92 km.

Part 7. The Grind, they call it

I will say it again. 92 km. A standard marathon is 42 km. This is more than double. We’re all tired, some are carrying injuries, everyone’s in calorie deficit, it’s forecast to be high 40s again, and we have to run one mother of a long way. 92 km is an Ultra all on its own.

I wish everyone good luck and they do the same. We wander over to the start line together.

It’s 04:00. Adam’s smile is brighter than his headtorch. There are 8 CPs before the line. You MUST be clear of CP7 by 19:00 or you’ll be pulled out to be a Short Course finisher. Only those who make the cut get to go on and try to complete the Long Course and get an official time. It’s up a sand dune for the first 5.5 km. Then it’s broadly downhill.

I set off with Andy, he tells me all about his cancer treatment. He really is astonishing. In no time we are at the top of the dune, we can see the car headlights shining out from CP1. We make it easy and run straight through. We are making really good time. We are really running, making use of the comparative cool of the night (only in the 20s).

Somewhere between CP1 and CP2, Andy drifts forward from me, or more like, I drift back from him. I head down a beautiful canyon past some cliffs.

On through CP2 again, no pause, running well.

CP3. Getting seriously hot now. And seriously uphill, what was with the “You’ll be dropping down” nonsense? What’s worse, my Jelly Babies have fused into one enormous sticky blob of arms and legs and unidentifiable body parts. Still taste good though.

No wind now. Incredible heat now pressing down. Nico told me he’d gotten a phone message from Simson Uri-Khob, the CEO of Save the Rhino Trust Namibia. He’s going to meet me en route, to say hello. And sure enough, out of the shimmering heat, there he is, all smiles and hugs and handshakes. It’s all I can do not to break down crying. We walk together into the next Checkpoint, about 200 metres away. Then he’s off to find Ellie and say hello. It’s so kind, he’s taken a day off to support us, a privilege none of the other runners have except for Riana, who has the wonderful Nico cheering her on. Simson gives me such a boost. And I see him again, on the way back from Ellie. By now it’s roasting and I am struggling, so I beg some water and he gives me – whisper it – a drink from a bottle of COLD water. The team tries their best to keep the water at basecamp and checkpoints as cool as possible, but it’s been days since I had anything actually cold. It’s bliss. I bounce off, the impact is immediate. God Bless Simson.

CP4. CP5. The temperature is up and up. The gradient too keeps up and up. What on earth was Adam’s “it’s downhill” all about? CP5 to CP6 turns out to be the killer stage for many runners. It’s up and up and steep with it, it’s mid-afternoon, we are all terrified of missing the 19:00 cut, the pressure of the heat and the time limit are oppressive, there are no runners in sight (as usual), and it’s all I can do to look up and admire this formidable landscape, draw some strength from it. My mantra is I am enjoying this, I am enjoying this. My feet are really falling apart now, but I am damned if I am stopping for blisters, it’s too late, this is the last day, just get there. On and on. It’s a long leg, 10 km feels like 100. Suddenly I see the gazebo of CP6. I am more-or-less out of water, but it’s going to be ok, I can make it that far. This is the third time I have run dry, drunk a full three litres between CPs. This race is hard.

I collapse into CP6.

I stay at CP6 as long as I dare, leave with Andy, and I hope to run the rest of it with him. He’s struggling to comprehend how the big cushion of time he built running the first few sections has evaporated. I knew it would be thus. I try to reassure him but, regardless of that, there’s only one thing to do, and it’s march as well as we can, it being way too hot to attempt running now. CP7 is 12kms away. We have time. We’ve got this.

We chat a lot. He’s setting up a coaching business. He established a running club for people who’ve given up alcohol. He’s simply very likable, and I am deeply deeply grateful for his company. Nico pops up and soaks us with water. Saint Nico. Would not have made it without him.

At around about 18:10 the longed-for CP7 comes into view. We get there at 6:20. 40 minutes to get clear. I eat Andy’s other spare beef noodles. Bliss. We have got this.

18:55 and Adam’s twitching about, smile looking a bit more frozen. Get going, is the message. I heave myself up, everything feels so rushed, I am dreading the last 22 km. It’s 19:00. We’re out. The sun has gone down, last light, and finally it’s a little little cooler. Andy and I actually manage a run, or what passes as a run. Coming away from a CP now my feet scream at me, the pain is blinding, but I know that after 400 or 500 metres it will reduce to an angry ache. That first half km is like Frankenstein’s monster, not like any kind of super-human athlete. I am barely recognisable as human.

We hit CP8. I wanted to go straight through but I can’t, I have to sit a minute. We attach glowsticks to our backpacks, headtorches on full beam and we head downhill, for this bit actually is downhill (thanks Adam), down the most spectacular canyon, to Ugab camp and the finish line.

We walk, energy and conversation ebb. On we go. 22:30 passes. 23:00. 23:30. Slower and slower. Occasionally I wait for Andy but there’s no talking now, we are in our own heads. 23:45. Will this ever end? I’m falling asleep on my (aching) feet. At midnight I hear Andy behind me shouting Happy Birthday. I smile for the first time in a long time. A weird way to turn 56. I move on slowly. I am really struggling now, feet in a total mess. Finally, I see a couple of lights, and wait a minute for Andy. He’s been delayed by a half-foot drop, trying to work out how on earth he can step down it without collapsing totally. We are definitely on our last legs.

We walk in together, at 00:15. I more or less collapse into Jenny’s arms, hug her while I sob it out, finally recover some composure and try to find Andy to hug him. He’s lost in a scrum somewhere. Someone, Adam I think, hangs a medal on me. All I want is to crawl into bed. Or, in fact, my tent. I stagger over without screaming, which is some achievement, seized up solid, and find Craig dozing. Turns out he was 3rd man. Steady running every day means he’s 3rd fastest man, fourth overall on his first ever Ultra. He looks like he’s been for a stroll in the Cotswolds. He’s some man.

In the end, Ellie is first woman and 3rd overall. On the podium on her first Ultra. It won’t be her last. It might be the hardest. The next day she signs up for the Comrades. Go Ellie!

28 started. 19 finished the Long Course. Three more finished the Short Course. 6 DNFs. 28 heroes; far more including the medics and crew. 19 out of 28 is the highest proportion of finishers the race has ever had – testament to how closely the runners bonded and helped each other – as we had the hottest temperatures ever seen on this race.

Post script

We didn’t see any desert-adapted rhinos on this run, although Simson told me there was a cow and calf nearby. It’s extraordinary that they can survive in this place, their ability to sniff out tiny little fresh springs is the stuff of legend. I was once told that this population has the longest life-expectancy of all wild rhinos, despite having arguably the harshest environment. How so, I asked. Because, came the reply, they have adapted to being able to eat some of the succulents that cling on here, and you can eat these even when your teeth are knackered, so when other rhino fade, these keep going. Truly amazing. I am, as you probably know, a Patron of Save the Rhino International, and very proud of it. I have a small fundraising page; my firm will generously match donations, so if you can find a few quid to put to the cause of protecting these incredible ancient beasts, I would be really touched.

Want to read more? Download Kenneth’s full race diary. 

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