Running Through a Desert…Again!

Thursday, 13 October, 2011 - 10:08

Running and completing the 2011 Sahara Race was a massive challenge and accomplishment for David Barnard. But it required many months of training and preparations just to get to starting line in the Sahara Desert on 2 October 2011. Part 1 of “Running Through the Sahara Desert with a Mission” covers the build-up to the start of the race, including the “No Pain No Gain” fundraising campaign.

“No Pain, No Gain” - Running Through the Sahara Desert with a Mission - Part 1

The Story Behind the Story

It all started after I completed the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM) in October 2010…and ended shortly after 11h00 on 8 October 2011 as I ran over the finishing line of the 2011 Sahara Race in sight of the Pyramids of Giza on the outskirts of Cairo.

Although my body, and especially my feet, took a pounding running 250km through the Kalahari Desert, I had been bitten by the desert running bug. I wanted to experience more extreme running adventures and was looking for a next big challenge.

I had already been reading about the Sahara Race while preparing for the KAEM. This, coupled with my general interest in the many fascinating features of the African continent, including the Sahara Desert, made it an easy decision - I was going to run the 2011 Sahara Race in Egypt!

I started the Sahara Race fitter, wiser and better prepared based on my KAEM experience. But a seven-day race through a desert in extreme conditions does not always follow the planned script…

This is my story. It is a story of another experience of a life-time and the meaning of it all - both personally, and to the work of SANGONeT and the South African NGO sector in general.

Background to the Sahara Race

For those not familiar with the Sahara Race, it is a seven-day, six-stage self-sufficient footrace race across the Sahara Desert in Egypt. The seventh edition was held from 2-8 October 2011.

Organised by RacingThePlanet, the Sahara Race forms part of the 4 Deserts, a unique series of self-supported footraces across the largest and most forbidding deserts on earth, including the Gobi in China, Atacama in Chile, Sahara in Egypt, and Antarctica. These races take competitors on journeys through the driest, hottest, coldest and windiest places on earth, testing their mental and physical limits.

In 2010 TIME magazine named the 4Deserts series as the number 1 footrace in the world, and as one of the world’s top 10 endurance events.

The Sahara Desert is the largest non-polar desert in the world. It is also the hottest - temperatures on the course reach as high as 50°C. During the race, competitors, volunteers and staff are expected to consume more than 16 000 litres of water over the seven days of the event.

The 2011 Sahara Race took place in the Valley of the Whales in Egypt, known by locals as Wadi El-Hitan and by scientists as the Zeuglodon Valley. The Valley of the Whales is located approximately 80 km from Fayoum City, which is in turn 100 km south-west of Cairo. The valley is part of the Wadi El-Rayan Protected Area (WRPA) in the Western Desert of Egypt. In 2005, it was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as a World Heritage site in recognition of the 40 million year-old whale skeletons discovered in the area.

WRPA is an open-air museum that was created in 1989 and contains unique biological, geological and cultural resources. It lies between two lakes which were created in the 1970s from excess agricultural water channelled from the nearby Lake Karun (Qarun). The terrain is largely sand - a mixture of hard-packed sand, soft sand and sand dunes.

The Sahara Race is an extreme human challenge and competitors must carry all their clothes, food and compulsory safety equipment for the duration of the event, forcing them to go beyond the limits of their physical and mental endurance. The organisers only supply competitors with overnight camps, water, professional medical support, check points at every 9-11 km, and an experienced crew who look after their needs.

The 2011 Sahara Race attracted 152 entries from nearly 40 countries. The largest number of competitors came from South Korea, followed by Taiwan and Japan.

The race finished at the Pyramids of Giza, south of Cairo, on 8 October 2011.

No Pain, No Gain” Fundraising Campaign

My decision to enter the 2011 Sahara Race was informed by the idea to once again use my participation in support of SANGONeT’s fundraising activities for 2011. In 2010 we crafted the “No Pain No Gain” fundraising campaign linked to my participation in the KAEM.

Often, charities link their fundraising activities to the participation of people in various sporting events (e.g. marathons and ultra-marathons such as the Comrades Marathon, Iron Man, etc). However, it is not common practice for staff members of these organisations, or in this case the Executive Director, to take up the challenge on behalf of his/her organisation.

Based on the experience of 2010, we decided to be more ambitious this year and expand the focus and scope of the fundraising campaign.

The 2011 campaign started on 1 July 2011, exactly 100 days to the last day of the Sahara Race on 8 October 2011. It will continue until 3 November 2011, the last day of the 2011 SANGONeT Conference.

The objectives of the 2011 "No Pain No Gain" campaign are three-fold.

Firstly, to raise money to expand key SANGONeT services such as the NGO Pulse Portal, the Prodder NGO Directory and the SANGOTeCH technology donation portal in support of NGOs in South Africa and other parts of Africa.

Secondly, given the focus and scope of SANGONeT's work, to raise awareness and support for other NGOs at the forefront of development and community work in South Africa. The four organisations involved in the 2011 fundraising campaign are the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), Starfish Greathearts Foundation and SCORE.

Lastly, to raise awareness about the work of TechSoup Global in Africa. The TSG technology product donation programme supports technology investments in nonprofit organisations in more than 30 countries, including four in Africa - South Africa, Botswana and Kenya (all under SANGONeT’s management) and significantly in terms of the Sahara Race, also in Egypt.

Collectively, all the participating organisations are implementing a wide range of communication and outreach activities to generate awareness about the campaign and secure donations in support of our work. The fundraising target is R1 million which will be shared equally between the five organisations.

In the weeks leading up to the Sahara Race I tried to visit various projects and initiatives of all these organisations to familiarise myself with their work and to make the campaign meaningful and real. I’m proud to be associated with these pioneering organisations and feel honoured to have represented them during the race.

During the race itself, we dedicated one day of the race to each of the organisations by profiling their work on the NGO Pulse Portal (various articles, stories, highlights, etc), while I was wearing a special coloured armband (e.g. pink for CANSA) on that day.

Running through the Sahara Desert gave real meaning to our campaign slogan - “No Pain No Gain”!

The Journey from the Cape to Cairo

After a few months of relatively little running after the KAEM in October 2010, my preparations for the Sahara Race started in earnest in January 2011.

I felt motivated and ready for my next big running challenge, knowing that it would take me at least nine months to prepare for the race. Although I never had any injuries in the run up to race, compared to last year when I struggled before and during the KAEM with a very sore left knee, I often picked up flu and colds this year which impacted on my training schedule and state of mind.

However, by mid-September I had already done more than 1 800km of running in preparation for the race, and, combined with many gym and core strengthening sessions, felt ready for my most extreme running challenge ever.

My training and running, linked to my SANGONeT work and travel commitments, have taken me to many corners of South Africa and the rest of the world. From running the Golden Gate Trail Half Marathon in February in San Francisco, running for a week on the beaches and roads of Tagbilaran in the Philippines in March, running the Bonn City Marathon in April, a week of running through the streets and parks of Warsaw and the three-day Forest Run through the mountains and forests of George and Knysna in June, running 200km on the beaches and gravel roads of Stilbaai as part of my eight-day “training camp” in July/August, to running 70km on beautiful beaches of the West Coast in September. The unique experience of each of these runs will remain with me forever.

In addition to this, I have run many marathon and half-marathon road races, and completed 84km in the Dawn to Dusk 12-hour race in Pretoria at the end of August 2011. Other than these interesting outings, there were many long and often lonely hours of training runs on hot summer days in the beginning of the year and cold winter days from May to July 2011. I did most of my runs in the last few months before the race with a back pack weighing between 5 and 7 kg, and wearing extra layers of clothes to create as much heat as possible in preparation for the Sahara.

Ultimately, regardless of my level of fitness and overall preparations, there were no guarantees for finishing the race. Given past statistics, at least 20-25% of the 150 participants do not finish the race for medical or related reasons.

But I felt that I had done what is humanly possible in terms of training, on top of work and family commitments, to prepare myself to the best of my ability for the race and to overcome the unique challenges associated with running through the Sahara Desert.

I never questioned my decision to enter the race, but often thought about the challenges that the race would present me and the other competitors - the heat, sand, tiredness, lack of comfort, blisters and luke warm drinking water, to mention just a few. And of course, the pain!

However, as I had experienced all these challenges and the pain during the KAEM, at least I had a good sense of what was waiting for me in the Sahara. The difference was that this time it would be a very different experience far away from family, friends and colleagues.

With these thoughts I left South Africa on Wednesday, 28 September 2010, on Flight SA7162 to Dubai. Final destination - Cairo.

The Final Countdown

I arrived in Cairo late in the afternoon on 29 September 2011 and made my way to the Dusit Thani Lakeview Hotel in “new” Cairo, the base for all Sahara Race organisers and competitors before and after the race.

A number of competitors were already milling around in the reception area of the hotel. I used Thursday evening and most of Friday morning to finalise various issues related to the “No Pain No Gain” fundraising campaign which was gaining momentum back in South Africa.

Early on Friday afternoon I moved to a new room and met up with Geoff Heald, a fellow South African and my roommate before and after the race, and tent mate while in the Sahara Desert.

Our conversation focused only on one thing - the race! Over the next few hours we unpacked our backpacks, compared our food, nutrition and equipment, identified things we could remove from our backpacks or share during the race, and shared our fears and expectations about the challenge lying ahead. There was excitement in the air, but also a few nerves!

Late that afternoon, I had the opportunity of visiting down-town Cairo with Jacqueline Mourad from the local Egyptian TechSoup partner organisation. Although I have been to Cairo before, I wanted to visit Tahir Square, which was central to many of the demonstrations which resulted in the regime change Egypt experienced earlier this year.

This was a very emotional and informative outing and definitely one which I will remember for a very long time. Thousands of people were in the square during our visit, demonstrating and demanding for significant socio-political change and a better life for all Egyptians. These are sentiments closely related to the challenges facing South Africa and the reality which informs the work we do as SANGONeT.

We finished the evening having dinner with Jacqueline’s husband and her boss, Tamer Tbadrawi.

Saturday morning was a madhouse of activities and final preparations. At 08h00 all competitors met for the first time in one place for the compulsory race briefing, which also included an equipment check and the issuing of our race numbers.

After this Geoff and I enjoyed our last proper breakfast for a week - we most probably consumed the sum total of three breakfasts each!

Then it was back to our rooms for a final phone call home and checking our luggage into storage, before we all got onto buses for the three-hour trip to our first base camp in the Sahara Desert. On route we passed the Pyramids of Giza, a sight we were all hoping to see again seven days later.

The camp was situated next to the Southern Lake, a bit unreal considering we were in the middle of a dessert. After some water melon and soft drink treats and the first of many freeze dried meals, we had an early night in anticipation of the start of the 2011 Sahara Race the next morning at 07h00.

The wait was finally over!!!


To read Part 2, click here, and Part 3, 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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