“No Pain, No Gain” - Running Through the Kalahari Desert with a Mission

It all started in December 2009 after watching the highlights of the 2009 Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM) on SuperSport…it ended shortly after 11h00 on 23 October 2010 as I ran over the finishing line of the 2010 KAEM with blistered feet after covering almost 250km in seven days through the Kalahari Desert.
This is my story. It is about an experience of a life-time and the meaning of it all, both personally and to the work of SANGONeT and South African NGO sector in general.


For those not familiar with the KAEM, it is a seven-day self-sufficient race through the Kalahari Desert. The 2010 race covered 240 km, split in six legs with daily distances ranging from 28 km to 76 km, and with average daily temperatures reaching in excess of 40°C.

The route traverses the Augrabies Falls National Park, private game parks, including Dabaras, and many private farmlands. Participants run in the footsteps of the ancient Bushmen, through the fertile vineyards of the Orange River Valley, across rocky outcrops and into the desolate Kalahari Desert.

The KAEM is an extreme human challenge and participants must carry all their supplies, clothes and compulsory safety equipment for the duration of the event.

The organisers supply the participants with overnight camps, water, professional medical backup, check points at every 8-10 km, and an experienced crew who look after the participants needs.

The KAEM is not just another long distance race on the South African running calendar. It is the ultimate challenge and is fondly referred to as the “Big Daddy” of long distance running in South Africa.

Organised by Extreme Marathons, the 2010 race was the 11th edition of this unique event.

Big Decision

I decided to enter the 2010 race after watching the highlights of the 2009 event on SuperSport in December 2009. My long distance running “career” ended in June 2002 after I completed my third Comrades Marathon. In the seven years that followed I did no further serious running with the exception of the occasional jog around the block with my dogs or a few friends.

The decision to enter KAEM was therefore not simply a new running challenge for someone who was active in long distance running - it was about starting from scratch. Now eight years older (and in my early 40s), I experienced the rude awakening of having to learn to run long distances - 10, 15, 20, 30, 42 kms, etc., all over again. On top of it all, I had to do my most intensive training during the Highveld winter from May-August 2010.

To say the nine months of training was tough and challenging is an understatement. But it prepared me physically and mentally for what was to come. It was a period of sacrifice and sometimes personal doubt about the decision to embark on this journey.

The initial excitement about entering the race was soon replaced with the reality of the level of training required, the frustration of a calf injury and then two months of intensive training and rehabilitation with a biokineticist, followed by months of training with painful knees. They remained a constant reminder throughout the seven days in the Kalahari of the physical strain and pain my body was experiencing.

“No Pain, No Gain” Campaign

Once I made the decision to enter the 2010 KAEM, the idea emerged to use my participation in the race as part of SANGONeT’s fundraising activities for 2010.

Often, NGOs and charities link their fundraising activities to the participation of professional athletes and celebrities in various sporting events. However, it is not common practice for staff members of these organisations, or in my case, the Executive Director, to take up the challenge on behalf of his/her organisation. Furthermore, the KAEM is a very unique physical challenge to be linked with fundraising activities.

Under the slogan of “No Pain No Gain”, we crafted a fundraising campaign linked to my participation which aimed to create awareness about SANGONeT’s work and raise money in support of SANGONeT initiatives such as NGO Pulse, Prodder, SANGOTeCH, SN Announce, Lwati, various annual events and others - all strategic information, communication and technology services supporting thousands of NGOs and other organisations involved in development work in Southern Africa.

We used SANGONeT’s various electronic communication channels (e.g. NGO Pulse, SN Announce, etc.) and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to keep people informed about my preparations, to raise awareness about the “No Pain No Gain” campaign and encourage people to donate, and ultimately about my participation in the race.

The Race

“Our blood was boiling, literally boiling out there today. Literally boiling.” (Comment by one of the 2010 participants)

Heat, sand, rocks, cold nights, sore feet...these are some of the memories that come to mind when I think about the KAEM.

Running in average daily temperatures in excess of 40°C, which reached close to 50°C on the first and fourth days, carrying all our food and equipment on our backs, drinking lukewarm water to quench our thirst, and running the race for most of the time with sore knees and blistered feet, are but some of the issues that confronted us. Each of these issues represents a challenge in its own right, but combined, they create an extreme challenge to all participants.

But let’s start at the beginning…

I left for Augrabies with about 10 other participants, mainly international runners from the UK, Australia, Hawai and France, early on Friday, 15 October 2010. We arrived at the Augrabies Falls National Park late that afternoon after a 10-hour bus trip from Johannesburg. Most other participants also arrived that evening and there was great excitement amongst everyone about the challenge that awaited us as we enjoyed traditional potjiekos and a few cold beers to get the carbo-loading going.

The Saturday morning we all attended a compulsory briefing session, which included an equipment check and the issuing of our race numbers. Listening to race organiser, Estienne Arndt, explaining the rules of the event and the “new route” we were going to use, the severity of the race slowly dawned on me.

That afternoon we all watched the two Currie Cup semi-finals together. It was great seeing the Sharks beat the Bulls (a few participants supporting the Bulls were not to pleased), and my team, WP, beat the Cheetahs. However, the reality of the race starting in a few hours was never too far from our thoughts or the focus of the conversations.

The race was scheduled to start at 09h00 on Sunday, 17 October 2010. We were all up early that morning making final adjustments to our back packs and equipment. At 07h30 we left by bus for the start which was about 50km from Augrabies.

There was sense of nervousness and excitement in the air as participants wished one another good luck and waited for the race to start - months of planning and training finally came to fruition.

The scheduled distance of the first leg was 26km. Soon after the start I joined a group of four runners (Louis, Pieter, Deon and Marinda) and stayed with them to the end. The initial 10km were fairly flat, but was followed by a rocky patch and the first of many sandy stretches which would test all participants in the days to come. We completed the first leg in a very satisfying 3h09.

However, we ran the final few kilometres in a temperature reaching in excess of 45° - a rude awakening if any of us still had any doubts about the physical test that the KAEM was going to present over the next few days.

My worst nightmare was realised when I discovered the first of many blisters on my feet - this after only the first day! Common sense prevailed and I immediately consulted Dr Johan who gave me the first of many needle treatments - push a needle and string through the blister to drain the fluid, but you keep the string inside and occasionally pull the ends to relief any additional fluid. By the end of the race most participants’ feet looked like multi-coloured tapestries!

At least our camp was close to the Orange River and a few dips in the river soon took care of the heat and tiredness of the first day.

Day two started with a totally unexpected challenge. After running for about 1km through a very sandy patch next to the Orange River, we had to climb up a steep mountain. The heavy back pack (still weighing at least 12kg) tested my strength and endurance in a manner very different from what I expected before the race. The result of this little exercise was that we reached the first checkpoint (at approximately 3km) only after an hour. With the scheduled distance of the second leg 38km, it became a very long hot and tiring day, with many heavy sandy stretches followed by hard, rocky ones.

Other than the long run on Day four, this was my most difficult and testing day of the race.

I finished the second leg in 7h19 in the company of Milkman and Chanleigh. We were all just relieved that we made it to end. By the end of the second day two participants already retired from the race.

The distance of Day three was only 30km and I joined Marinda, Pieter and Deon for the first 20km. I felt much better than the previous day, but my right knee was starting to give a few signals which were not encouraging knowing that the following day we had to cover 76km.

The final few kilometres covered one of the sandiest stretches that we experienced during the whole race. Covering various dry river beds, our race notes described this stretch as “a sandy river bed followed by a sandier river bed followed by an even sandier river bed”. Enough said, it was bloody sandy!

But it was great finishing the day in 4h31 and I was quietly confident about the long run the following day. Except for that knee…

Day four started with the first runners leaving the camp at 06h00 and thereafter the rest of us left in intervals of 30 minutes, with the two leading men only starting at 13h00.

If Queen Elizabeth II had her annus horribilis in 1992, then I had a whole year of pain, suffering and frustration packed into one day - Wednesday, 20 October 2010.

My right knee lasted exactly one hour and then started stiffening. The result was that I could not bend my knee and therefore could not run. My choices were very simple - either stop and withdrew from the race or start walking, mostly very slowly, for the rest of the way. What started at 10h00 that morning, finished 17.5 hours later the following morning when I finally crossed the finishing line at 04h30.

I have never been on my legs for 17 hours, never mind walking in temperatures reaching close to 50 °C. I was tested mentally and physically like never before.

It was with great relief that I made it to end, and although exhausted and with a few more blisters and very sore feet, I felt that by surviving day four my chances of completing the race increased significantly.

With darkness setting in at about 19h00 that evening, and despite my physical condition, I experienced one of the most amazing sights - walking under the full moon through a desert. With hardly any noise or wind, this was truly an amazing experience and provided some distraction from my sore knees and feet.

The Kalahari has a beauty of its own. It is mostly barren, bare and brown, but then you see springbok, giraffe and gemsbok, with the occasional Quiver tree in the background, and suddenly the desert comes alive.

On a sad note, at one of the checkpoints late in the afternoon I came across Gary and Patrick who, as a result of the heat and exhaustion, had to withdraw from the race. We have now lost six participants, with still two days of racing left.

Day five was a rest day. It started out fairly cloudy and cool, which was a nice change from the heat wave of the previous few days. Our camp was again close to the Orange River and provided us with an opportunity to swim, wash clothes and recover from the first four days.

With two days to go I really wanted to finish the race on a high, although my feet and knees were big concerns. Dr Johan again added to the tapestry on my feet, and after a much-needed massage, some medication for my knees and reading e-mail messages received from family and friends, I felt more comfortable and confident about the final two stages.

I started Day six a man on a mission. My knees felt ok and I wanted to have a good day, especially given my experience on Day four. The distance of the fifth leg was 46km, and we ran for most of the day in fairly cloudy conditions.

I had my best race day by far and completed the distance in 6h40, to the amazement of many participants and especially Dr Johan. My feet were in much better condition, with no new blisters added, while my knees for some strange reason never really bothered me at any stage during the day.

With one day to go, I felt a lot more relaxed and confident about finishing the race. Everyone stayed up a little longer that evening, sharing stories and experiences about the race around our last camp fire. Suddenly, the race was almost over, a very unreal feeling given the months of training and preparations and the pain and suffering of the previous few days.

Unfortunately, we lost another participant (Andrew) due to an infection in his feet, and were now down to only 30 runners.

The last day finally arrived with just 24km to the finishing line. It started again very early with the runners in last positions leaving at 06h00 and the leading men starting only at 10h00.

I started at 08h15, and with Queen’s Greatest Hits blaring through my iPod, running on adrenaline and emotion. It is a great feeling to know that you are going to complete this extreme race. It was extra special to stop at the last three checkpoints of the race, thanking the people who encouraged us all the way. Without them and their support, this would have been a very lonely if not impossible challenge to overcome.

The final kilometre was something I will never forget.

Running faster than at any stage of the race (that is not very fast compared to the other runners), it was an amazing experience to enter the Augrabies Falls National Park and finally cross the finishing line in 2h48 for the stage and 42h02 for the overall race.

Yes, there were tears, quite a few of them, but who cares, it was finally over.

In the next hour all the remaining runners completed the race and we all experienced the same relief, excitement and pride. And who will ever forget that first cold Coke, followed by the coldest beer I ever enjoyed!

Participants and Crew

Compared to the number of participants in the 2009 race (73), the 2010 race attracted a relatively small field - 37 participants. However, this allowed for closer and more regular interaction between participants and no doubt contributed to the close friendships developed during the race.

Given the small number of participants, it was easy to observe individual personalities and characteristics, the group dynamic, and people’s experiences of the race itself.

My personal observations about some participants…

I admired the running ability, skills and determination of the leading men and women runners (Dirk, Hylton, Marinda and Francis); learned much from the experiences of someone who has completed 28 Comrades Marathons (Mike); developed deep respect for a 60+ old runner who is still in love with running and represents the best in integrity that the sport has to offer (Dieter); enjoyed the humour, spirit and sportsmanship of the participants from the Northern Cape (Alwyn, Henry and Kobus); made great new friends during the race, shaped by shared experiences of tiredness, blistered feet, and the relief and raw emotion of completing the race (Louis, Pieter, Deon and Milkman); admired the tenacity and “never give up” spirit of the female participants (Chanleigh, Heather, Mary, Angi); enjoyed the running stories and experiences of the international participants from the UK, Australia, France, Hawai and Botswana; and felt the pain and disappointment of the runners (seven in total) who were not able to complete the race due to fatigue, dehydration and infected feet.

Similarly, everyone who supported the race as “crew members” (race organisers - Estienne and Nadia, doctors and medical staff, checkpoint coordinators, the camp commandant and his staff, physios, photographers, etc.) made a special contribution to this unique experience.

Hearing JJ’s (camp commandant) voice in the morning shouting - “good morning happy campers, time to rise and shine!”, seeing a friendly face at a checkpoint ready to offer words of encouragement, or even as Dr Johan or one of the medical staff pushed another needle through another blister, you knew your well-being was always their first priority.

The KAEM is tough, very tough. But because everyone suffers together, the spirit and camaraderie between participants, and participants and crew, make this a truly unique experience.

The Meaning of it All

The words of the official Kalahari Song best describe this unique experience:

I want to go where the sun shines.
Where the river flows and the quiver trees grow.
To a place I know my soul will be revived.
I want to go where the rocks and cliffs rise up from the trail.
I want to run through the space into the setting sun.
It’s here I feel alive with a challenge to survive -
Even though I sometimes wonder what’s on my mind.
The sand is like the sea - rough and yet serene.
And the sky runs up as far as the eye can see.
I know I feel the pain as the sweat drops from my brain
Runs into my eyes as I cross this hot terrain.
I have overcome my fear and I know the end is near
I will leave this place - as I know I’ll be back again.
The finish line is near - I can almost taste the beer
As I forge towards the end with quickened pace.
And when all this is done - I’ll be happy that I’ve run
Now I yearn for rivers, rocks and sand and space.
Cause it draws me back again when I cannot feel the pain
Yet the sunsets, rivers rocks and sand and space
Yes, it draws me back again to the desert and the sand
To the sunsets, rivers rocks and sand and space…

Although everyone participates with the aim of doing their best in very trying circumstances, it is ultimately about finishing the race, whatever it takes. The winner completed the race in 23h26, with the participant in last position taking 62h31. However, everyone is a winner, regardless of time or position.

Completing the race in 42h02 (17th position overall) exceeded all my personal expectations.

Participating in the race is a very humbling experience. There are very few if any luxuries (except the daily massage and the e-mail messages 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.

Drinking lukewarm water, sleeping with a tired body on a thin blow-up mattress with your back pack serving as a pillow, crawling into your sleeping bag at night dirty and sweaty (except after days one and four when the overnight camps were next to the Orange River), eating and drinking the same powdery stuff for seven days, running in the same dirty shirt, pants and shoes, and let’s not forget those blisters and sore feet - tested the endurance and spirit of all participants.

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 and vasbyt. Who would like do an endurance race through the desert in cool, rainy conditions? No, you wanted to experience the heat, the sand, the tiredness, the soreness and the elation of surviving it all and finishing the race in one piece.

Preparing for the KAEM 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 the lives of our people.

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

On a lighter note, I did “win” something - first prize for snoring.

“This man here, he is the king of snoring. The tribe has spoken.” (Comment by one of the 2010 participants)

What Next?

Finally, the big question - will I do this again? The answer at this stage is most probably just a non-committal maybe. Looking at the state of my feet and with four toe nails less than when I started the race, my body took a pounding in many ways and I will have to think long and hard before embarking on such a challenge again.

But, if the question is will I do it again 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, then, without a doubt, my answer is, Yes!

“This race gives you an 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 don’t expect, and you just have to face them and carry on. It’s very hard, but you find out what you have within you, and it’s more than you thought.” (Comment by one of the 2010 participants)

For more comments from participants, race results, 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.

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