Thursday, 13 October, 2011 - 09:50

In Part 3 of “Running Through the Sahara Desert with a Mission”, and having completed the 2011 Sahara Race, David Barnard reflects on various issues related to this unique experience, including relationships developed during the race, what drives him to run through deserts and his future plans.

“No Pain, No Gain” - Running Through the Sahara Desert with a Mission - Part 3

My Tent Mates

With more than 150 competitors from all corners of the world, it was never going to be possible to meet and befriend everyone. Although you develop friendships with the people you meet on the course while running every day or in the mornings and evenings next to fire over breakfast and dinner, ultimately the strongest relationships forged are those with the people you share your tent with.

We were 9 people in Tent 11 (official name - “Nekhbet”). My fondest memories of the race, and the least painful, are about the eight people that I shared that tent with. Let me tell you a little about each of them.

Johannes Grabisch (Germany, living in Switzerland) - Johannes was the one person that we all had the least interaction with. He suffered from severe cramp and dehydration after Stage 2 and was ultimately taken to a hospital in Cairo to recover and withdrew from the race. At least I had the opportunity of spending the final 15 km of stage 2 in his company as we walked/jogged together to the finishing line for the day. Johannes was older than the rest of us, but had a great sense of humour and it is a pity that we lost him as a member of our tent so early in the race.

Todd Handcock (Canada, living in Hong Kong) - Todd completed the Gobi March in 2009 and had a good sense of what to expect in the Sahara Race. Todd became stronger as the race progressed, and although he had a very bad first section on the long day, suffering from a painful right hip flexor and left iliotibial band syndrome (ITB), and a bad tummy, he recovered and made a strong finish (48th overall). Todd has a great sense of humour, loves sport (including rugby) and was always very supportive throughout the race. After the long day he had a massive blister on top of one of his toes - most probably the biggest blister in our tent for the whole race.

Arjan Roukema (Netherlands, living in Singapore) - the athlete in our tent. Having completed the 2010 Gobi March and many other ultra distance events, Arjan was by far the best runner in our tent. However, he almost did not complete stage 1 due to stomach problems, but recovered and progressively became stronger over the following days. He ultimately finished the race in 37th position overall. Like Todd, Arjan has a great sense of humour and was always interested in discussing issues related to extreme events such as the Sahara Race.

Patricia Luft (Germany) - our lady champ. Patricia and I both completed the KAEM and therefore had much to talk about before and during the race. She started the race slowly but increasingly became stronger and was the first women to complete the long Stage 5. She finished second in the women’s category and 38th overall. Patricia likes to laugh and we shared many funny moments watching competitors with stiff legs and funny walking styles making their way through the camp sites.

Luba Vaughan (Ukraine, living in the United States) - the mother of our tent. Everyone who participated in the 2011 Sahara Race will remember Luba. She only completed Stage 1 of the race and thereafter became a member of the support crew. She always had a word of encouragement, a joke or a hug for everyone needing it while running during the day or recovering in the camp afterwards. But she saved the best treatment and support for her tent mates. She took care of us, made us laugh and made us feel special. Without her, our Sahara Race experience would be much less enjoyable and colourful.

Nigel Vaughan (United Kingdom, living in the Unites States) - Luba’s over half! With his British humour, spiced with a few years of American culture, Nigel is the perfect match for Luba. So different in personalities, but what a guy and what a couple they are! Nigel completed every stage of the race, except the final two legs of Stage 2, and as result, did not qualify for a medal. However, he deserved one, as he never complained about spending long hours in the sun every day, knowing that he would not be an official finisher. I take my hat off to him and know he will conquer the Gobi Desert in June 2012.

And finally, my two fellow countrymen.

Lourens Roets (South Africa, living in Hong Kong) - the quiet man of our tent. Lourens suffered with sore feet and many painful blisters from day 1. However, he never complained, just finished every day and got up the next morning ready for more pain. My favourite part of the day was our late afternoon chats, sitting in front of our tent, and just talking about the race and life in general. These were special moments. I will also never forget running over the finishing line at the Pyramids with Lourens holding aloft a flag of our beloved Springboks.

Geoff Heald (South Africa) - a friend for life. I briefly met Geoff the first time a month before the race while in Cape Town. After that we often talked on the phone in the run up to our departure for Egypt. I was lucky to share a room with Geoff in Cairo before and after the race, which provided us with much time to discuss our expectations and experiences of the race. Geoff is the guy you call in the middle of the night when you have a problem, and then you invite him to stay on for a party later that day where he will be the heart and soul of all conversations and mischief. Geoff suffered from painful ankles and blisters throughout the race, but persevered, and finished in style wearing slip slops!

All eight my tent mates are very special people and I hope our paths will across again in a remote desert or coffee shop somewhere in the world.

Desert Jokes

You need a good sense of humour to survive an extreme event such as the Sahara Race. Here are a few jokes (maybe not that good) that I heard in the Sahara Desert.

# Aswan Dam

What did the fish in the Nile say when the Aswan Dam was completed?

We are damned!

# Car Door

A blonde, brunette, and redhead are all about to be sent into the desert for an experiment. They each will go out alone and with only one thing, except the clothes they wear. After being allowed to think about what they would each take, they respond as follow:

Brunette, "I brought some water so we don't get dehydrated."

Redhead, "I brought some sunscreen lotion so we don't get sunburned."

Blonde, “I brought a car door."

The other girls ask, "Why did you bring that?"

Then the blonde says, "So I can roll down the window if it gets hot."

# Tie

A man on a camel rode through miles of the sun-drenched desert searching for some sign of life.  His supplies were running low when his camel died. Now on foot, he desperately sought refuge from the heat, and, most importantly, a source for water.

Suddenly, he came across a vendor in the middle of the desert. "Thank God I found you!" the man cried. "Please help me. I'm in dire need of some water."

"Well," said the vendor, "I don't have any water. But would you like to buy one of these fine ties."

"What am I going to do with a tie?" the man asked.

"That's what I'm selling sir. If you don't like it, I can't help you."

The man left the vendor and walked on for many more miles, praying each minute that he would find refuge from the scorching sun.

His eyes squinted a bunch of times when he came across a restaurant in the distance. Unable to comprehend a restaurant located in the middle of the desert, he assumed the place was a mirage, but decided to check it out anyway.

As he approached the door, his mouth opened in amazement, seeing that the place actually existed.

The doorman stopped him before he entered.

"Excuse me sir," the doorman said, "But you can't come in here without a tie!"

The Meaning of it All

There is so much emotion linked to your participation in a race of this nature - shaped by months of training, fear of failure, tiredness, loneliness, missing family and friends, etc. The challenge is both physical and mental, and tests the body and mind to the extreme. It is not for the faint hearted, or as some might say, the right-mended.

Success is determined by a combination of factors - luck, conditioning, mindset, camaraderie and what we call “vasbyt” in Afrikaans. But more than the physical aspect, it is a mental thing.

Extreme endurance events such as the Sahara Race give you insight into the awesome power that people have within them to overcome. You know you are going to be challenged, but the real challenges come from directions you do not expect - upset stomachs, sleeping dirty, running for hours straight into a head wind, etc. - and you just have to face them and carry on. It is very hard, but you find out what you have within you, and it is more than you thought.

Lance Armstrong's famous quote, "Pain is temporary, quitting is forever”, is extremely relevant in this context when you start questioning why you are running for seven through the hottest desert in the world.

Although everyone participates with the aim of doing their best in very trying conditions, it is ultimately only about one thing - finishing the race, whatever it takes. The winner, Dan Parr, completed the race in 25h13, with the competitor in last position taking 72h24. However, everyone is a winner, regardless of time or position.

Completing the race in 52h38 (60th position overall) exceeded all my personal expectations.

The Sahara Race is tough, very tough. But because everyone suffers together, the spirit and camaraderie between tent mates, other competitors, organisers, medical staff and the support crew, make this a truly unique experience.

Participating in the race is a very humbling experience. There are very few if any luxuries (except the daily e-mail messages and blog comments from family and friends!). Sleeping on a bed, drinking cold water from a tap or fridge, sitting on a chair, taking a warm shower or bath, eating proper food, etc. are only distant memories once the race gets underway. And let’s not forget the blisters and sore feet. All these issues tested the endurance and spirit of all competitors to the extreme.

But no-one expected it to be easy, and once we completed the first day or two of the race, our mindset changed quickly to one of determination. Who would like do an extreme endurance race through the desert in cool, rainy conditions? No, you wanted to experience the heat, the sand, the sand dunes, more sand, the tiredness, the soreness and the elation of surviving it all and finishing the race in one piece.

Preparing for the Sahara Race and running the race is very much like managing an NGO in South Africa and many other developing country contexts.

It is often a very demanding, lonely, frustrating position, with long hours and much time away from home and family. There is always more to do than what time and resources allow for; the challenges at hand are always more difficult and complicated than expected; there are no short-cuts for success; and the funding and support environment is challenging and unpredictable.

But the people who work in this sector understand values and characteristics of integrity, determination and service, and the belief that only hard work and dedication will bring about change and improvement in people’s lifes.

These are the reasons why we work in the NGO sector, and why NGOs are at the forefront of the fight for social justice, while at the same time providing millions of South Africans with much needed social services.

On a lighter note, I did justice to my title as “king of snorers” earned during the KAEM.

I did not win the Sahara Race - the winners and most competitors did not even know about me - but they all competed for second prize when it came to snoring!!! Just ask my tent mates who spent many nights sleeping under the stars!

What Next?

Will I do this again? The answer without hesitation is - yes. Not maybe. Just yes!

There is something about running through a desert, even in pain, which is difficult to explain. It does not mean I’m insane or lost my marbles in the desert, it is just something unique, something special, something to treasure.

Linking such an extreme activity to a worthy cause - or in the case of the “No Pain No Gain” fundraising campaign - the work of six great organisations, obviously adds more meaning and motivation to my participation in these events.

I am passionate about the work I do, the organisation that I lead - SANGONeT - and the other five organisations which I represented during the Sahara Race. I am also passionate about the NGO sector in which I work and the issues which we are dealing with as we make South Africa a better place for all its people.

So, it if takes running through a desert in some remote part of the world to raise awareness and generate support for NGOs and development organisations in South Africa, and experience the pain and suffering for the sake of SANGONeT and its partners, then, without a doubt, I’m happy to do it all over again.

SANGONeT turns 25 in 2012, and this major achievement needs to be celebrated with a big new desert challenge and even bigger “No Pain No Gain” campaign.

See you in the Gobi Desert in June 2012!!!


I would like to thank all my tent mates, and all the other competitors, organisers, volunteers and support crew for making the 2011 Sahara Race a memorable experience.

Thank you also to everyone - friends, family, colleagues - back in South Africa and many other parts of the world for your e-mail messages and blog comments, for staying up many nights waiting for updates from the race, and for carrying all of us through the race in your dreams and prayers.

Thank you also to Nike, GU Energy and Freedom Outdoor for supporting me with the clothing, equipment and nutrition required during the race.


To read Part 1, click here and Part 2, click here.

For blogs from other competitors, race results, and photos and video clips about the race, click here.

To view my photos of the race, click here.

To support the SANGONeT “No Pain No Gain” campaign with a donation, click here.

(I dedicate this story to my dad, David Botha Barnard (sr), who passed away on 12 October 2011.)

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