The Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM) is a multi-stage race held in the Kalahari Desert in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. The race follows a typical desert stage race format: 250k over six stages, with competitors carrying everything they need for the race except water and shelter. As one of the oldest stage races–2013 was the 14th edition–KAEM has its own culture and history while at the same time drawing some inspiration from the Marathon des Sables (MdS). One of the race organizers, Estienne Arndt, ran MdS the year before the first KAEM so there are some elements in common between the two races. The route for each year’s KAEM changes and is only revealed to competitors at the race briefing, the long stage of 75k falls on the fourth stage followed by a marathon-length Stage 5, and the route is not designed to be the toughest route, but rather to challenge the competitors and show off the beautiful region where the race is held.
The venue for the race is the Augrabies Falls National Park and surrounding land. The park is famous for the Augrabies Falls (the word ‘Augrabies’ is derived from a Khoi word meaning ‘place of big noise’) in the Orange River, which forms the border between South Africa and Namibia. The most common visitors to the park are tourists looking to go on safari. Visitors to the park can expect to see cheetah, ostrich, and large antelope such as eland, gemsbok, and giraffe along with smaller antelope such as the klipspringer and blesbok. The Kalahari is a desert region, but it is not a desolate area of only sand and salt flats, and there is abundant wildlife. However, it is still a desert and the competitors face many sections of sand, rolling sandy climbs, hot, dry riverbeds, and also extreme temperatures (over 50 Celsius on some stages in 2012).
This year I competed in the race along with my dad, Jonathan, and brother, Brian, making us the first father-and-sons family to take on the race. I have run multi-stage races before with some success (I won the Atacama Crossing in 2013) so I knew what I was getting myself into and I had prepared appropriately. My dad would be competing in his first stage race, but he does have an ultramarathon background to fall back on (he has a Comrades Marathon permanent number). My brother, on the other hand, had never completed an ultramarathon or a stage race so he was going into it blind. We all knew it would be a challenge and a tough race, but most of all we were looking forward to a week of uninterrupted time together in the desert. I live in Chile, my brother lives in South Africa, and my father in Zimbabwe so we don’t get too many opportunities to spend time together like this.
Stage 1: 26k
The first stage was an introduction to the race. The route took us directly into the Augrabies Falls National Park along dirt roads, through a section of sandy riverbeds, and finally along a boulder-strewn beach beside the Orange River to the first camp. Within the first few kilometers, a routine of what we could expect to see over the course of the race was already being established. In the first five minutes. we were diverted off course to move around a massive eland that was standing in the trail. This brought us to the first obstacle, a water crossing. My brother and I ploughed through and kept on running while my dad followed the example of the more cautious runners and stopped to take off his shoes to walk through and keep his shoes dry. We were only 15 minutes into the race and had seen an antelope and two very different race strategies!
As the race moved into a sandy riverbed, I pushed the pace to open up the field and take advantage of my light pack weight (about six kilograms) and therefore relative ease on the sand. That was the last time I saw my dad and brother on Stage 1 until we were all at the finish. I ran most of the stage alone at the front which was the best place to enjoy the sights of the park. Halfway through the stage, I crested a small climb and could see down the road to a waterhole where two giraffe were drinking. It was spectacular.
I held my pace during the next section of dirt park roads, but Mahmut Yavuz caught me at the last checkpoint of the day. The final section was a sharp descent to the river and then 3k of boulder hopping and deep riverbed sand. This was one of the most beautiful parts of the race as we had magnificent vistas over the river and down the valley. Unfortunately the terrain was some of the toughest, too, so it wasn’t easy to take in the view. I pushed the pace again to take a small lead by the end of the stage and then waited for my family to come in. My brother ran strongly the whole way and was in tied seventh position while my dad also pushed hard in the last section to overtake a few people and finish the day in about 15th place.
It was a great first day with an introduction to everything the race would contain and we had all made it through unscathed. No blisters, no injuries, and on this first night, our race food still tasted pretty good!
Stage 2: 33k
We all woke up in good spirits and excited that we weren’t too sore from the previous day. However, we knew that what lay ahead of us was a tough section that was singlehandedly responsible for several DNFs in the 2012 race. A rolling start with a climb out of the river valley and 20k on jeep tracks through the park was followed by a turn off the track and into a dry river gorge. The gorge has deep sand, high banks that keep the wind out, and dark rock formations that hold in the heat. To make it even tougher, we would be running upriver! In 2012 it was between 50C and 60C inside the river gorge and the result was multiple people dropping out of the race. I wanted to run the section well as I seemed to be strong in the more technical and sandy sections. My brother also liked that plan but my dad didn’t make any commitment, rather sticking with his conservative approach and waiting to see what he faced when he got there.
The first part of the stage was smooth sailing and great running. The route was quick and when we had climbed away from the camp beside the river, we could see miles and miles of the Orange River winding through its green valley with rocky shores. I was at the front of the field and biding my time until the river-gorge section. After all the warnings from competitors who had been in the race the year before, the weather seemed to be cooperating and it was cloudy and cool which meant we might not struggle too much in the ‘river gorge from hell.’ When we reached the river gorge, it had cooled even further making the challenge only the sand and tough footing and not a massive heat wave.
I held my effort into the sand and that seemed to be enough for me to open a gap on second place. This was my third desert race so I knew how to run in the sand. However, what happened next was something that I had been told would never happen in any of the desert races I’ve done (the first two in the driest desert in the world, and this one in the desert and out of the wet season). It started to rain! The rain was cool and delicious and helped to compact the sand, making it easier to run. I thanked my lucky stars and held the pace all the way to the finish creating a 10-minute lead over second.
The rain continued to pelt down even more strongly over the next hour. The tents are designed to keep the sun off us and not to keep the rain away so I was getting soaked. The faces of the competitors arriving showed that the conditions were much worse than when I was running as they had to face strong rain and most were cold and wearing rain jackets. My brother decided to walk the river gorge to look after his knee where some Illiotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS) pain he had before the race had flared up again. He was happy to be through another stage, but a little worried about his knee. My dad held his conservative pace and came in strong. We were all a little worn down after the tough stage, but not too tired or sore yet and made it through two days.
Stage 3: 39k
After a cool night and into a cooler morning, we woke up happy that our air mattresses had survived another night in the thorny camp (some other runners weren’t quite as lucky). The day’s stage started with a steep climb up a rocky gorge followed by rolling terrain until the final 2k, which was another dry riverbed down to the camp. I was hoping for an easier day before the long stage and I think that my dad and brother were just hoping to get through the stage at this point.
I didn’t push the pace and so I settled into the group that contained three of us at the front. We rolled along through all of the short sandy sections and small rises without any problems and saw a lot of game along the way. I saw a giraffe running down the dirt track and when we reached its footprints, I tried to leap from footprint to footprint. Obviously I couldn’t sustain that for more than a couple strides–how cool it must be to have such a huge stride! As the stage went on, one of our group faded when we had about 5k to go and I could see that the runner in second overall was fading a little, too. I decided that the last 2k were not too far to push before the long stage and as I had been doing well in the sand it seemed like a good idea to go hard. A small gap opened up and when I reached the camp I had gained another five minutes over second. I settled in to camp happy with a good lead before the long day.
Unfortunately for my dad and brother, the day didn’t go well at all. I think the third day in a stage race is the most difficult because the newness of the race has worn off but there is still a long way to go. My dad struggled as he was feeling low on energy and seemed a little demoralized when he got to the end of the stage. It was definitely his worst day of the race, but he came out of it only a few places lower down in the overall rank. Brian must have been putting on a much braver face at the end of Stage 2 than I realized. Almost immediately in the rocky gorge climb, he started to struggle with his ITBS pain and ended up walking most of the stage. The race doctor strapped him up and instructed him to walk out the rest of the race so that he could finish without causing himself any further harm. He was upset, but determined to finish so he planned to take on the long stage with some of the slower runners so he would have company and people to walk with throughout the day.
The stage turned out to be a great day for me, but sadly my family had been shown the difficulties of stage racing in a hostile environment in a harsh way. And the next day a 75k stage lay ahead of us.
Stage 4: 75k
The challenge of the long stage was its length and the time spent running in the sun. It’s an unrelenting and consistent stage without becoming too extreme that it necessitates a slowing of pace or stopping. The start was staggered with the slowest competitors leaving at 6 a.m. followed by frequent batches of runners until the race leaders set off at 1 p.m. My brother started in one of the earliest batches and my dad started midway through the morning. Both of them planned to pace themselves consistently over the day (my brother walking) to get this stage over with. I was undecided about strategy as we were starting in the heat of the day, but would also be running in the dark toward the camp at the end. I planned to run conservatively and focus on staying cool and eating well early on.
Starting at 1 p.m., an hour after the previous batch of runners, was difficult. I had to wait the whole morning with second and third place while all the other competitors started their stage. Finally we started on the massive task and settled into our now familiar group of three holding a steady pace along the trail until the second checkpoint at about 14k. After the checkpoint, we entered a new dry riverbed (there seems to be an unlimited supply of these in the Kalahari!) that wound its way down to the lowest part of the course. I opened a small gap on the other two runners and decided to take advantage of what I now knew to be my relative strength: running in the sand. I stuck to the edges of the river maintaining a strong yet even pace and quite soon I couldn’t see anyone else behind me.
The staggered start allowed me the opportunity to see many of the other runners as I caught up to them. It was motivating to catch up and hear how the stage was going for them. The route took us over a long, sustained yet very gradual climb between checkpoint three to checkpoint six. The route was on sandy roads that were difficult to run on and I could see that most competitors had stepped off the road and run alongside it to find more stable footing. In a change from the previous stages, I had a slight advantage as I could follow everybody else’s footprints instead of them following mine! By the time I had reached the halfway point, I was about a third of the way through the field and running well. I hadn’t caught my dad and brother yet which was great news as they must have been holding their own and running good stages.
I held my pace and kept taking my nutrition and water steadily. The competitors were getting closer and closer together and at checkpoint six, I caught up to my dad. He was sitting down, taking care of his feet and eating a cooked meal. I tried to convince him to come with me as I filled my water bottles, but he wisely stuck to his plan and managed his own effort. From checkpoint six, we went gradually downhill all the way to the camp next to the Orange River. Unfortunately this downhill was very gradual and the trail was a sand road with no way to avoid the sand by stepping off the track. I was still feeling good and came up to my brother at the next checkpoint. Brian had been out for a very long time and was still excited, taking photos and enjoying himself. I was so impressed that he had kept his head high and soldiered on even though he was in pain and not running the race he wanted. It was just the inspiration I needed and I pushed on to try and catch the final few runners ahead of me.
The final sections of the stage were easier than I expected. I must have been on a small high from seeing my brother and dad doing so well and from knowing that I was leading the race. I caught and passed a few more runners before witnessing a stunning sunset at checkpoint eight. The sky was a gradient of colors from dark blue through to an intense pink and finally a strong orange glow around the setting sun. After that sunset, running in the dark didn’t worry me as much. I was happy to be in the Kalahari Desert and to be having an amazing day. I caught the final runner who was on the road in front of me and arrived at the camp first. It was wonderful to have completed a tough stage, passed all the other runners, and, in the end, I gained another nine minutes over second.
An hour later, my dad arrived followed by my brother an hour after that. They were both exhausted, proud of themselves, and glad to see that I had set up a cosy spot for us in the tent. We slept well and awoke to an amazing camp that no one had seen the night before because we all arrived in the dark. It was a riverside beach where we could swim and relax and see Namibia across the river while waiting for the final competitors to arrive during what would be a rest day for us.
Stage 5: 45k
This stage was a mix of sandy riverbed and long, dirt, game roads along the park fences as we worked our way toward the final camp. Everyone was mumbling about how hard it would be to run a marathon after four long days of running. Inevitably the pace started off slowly in all the groups of the staggered start. My brother left early again so I would see him later in the day and my dad started in my group as he was sitting in the top 20 of the field. I had a simple plan which was to maintain my overall lead by sitting with second place overall and letting him decide the pace. My dad and brother were so far into the unknown that they didn’t have plans any more and just went out to see what the day would hold!
We moved into a more densely populated part of the park and I saw the most game I would see over the whole week. There were ostriches, giraffe, eland, and klipspringer over the course of the day. After the halfway point, I was running alongside the park electrified fence and saw a klipspringer sprinting toward the fence about 20 meters in front of me. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but somehow it collided with the fence creating a huge racket and then managed to continue on its way on the other side of the fence. Amazing as that was, I was more frightened about what might be chasing it that was now coming my way, but I couldn’t see anything and hopefully was protected from any hunting cheetahs by the electrified fence (although it hadn’t stopped an antelope!).
I finished the day with Mahmut who was second overall and was relieved to know that I had a 25-minute lead and that there were only 26k to go. My dad had a good day and I could see how positive and relieved he was to be nearing the end of the race. Brian kept on going through his ITBS problems and finished up the stage sore but knowing that he was going to finish the race. In the camp, everyone was more relaxed and laughing and enjoying the last of their food. It was clear that only one more stage separated us from the finish line!
Stage 6: 26k
The final stage was 26k along the park road, past a waterhole, and over the magnificent Moon Rock before finishing back exactly where we started. It was a simple stage that was quick and we took in some spectacular views before the final finish line. This stage was also staggered so that the fastest runners would arrive last and could be welcomed home by the other runners in the field. I planned to run the whole way with second and third overall to conserve my lead and enjoy the final day of the race. My brother left very early with one of the groups of people walking and my dad left sometime in between the two of us.
The pace was easy and I was happy to be running and holding my position overall. After five long stages, the idea of running 26k on the final day didn’t seem too hard–it really was a walk in the park! Continuing with the great game sightings of Stage 5, I saw a lot of animals again. Most impressive was a herd of about nine giraffe eating on the side of the trail and ambling along together. The final obstacle of the race was the Moon Rock, a massive, granite dome that looks like the moon and provides a 360-degree view all around it. It was a last chance to look over the whole course and appreciate what we had done over the week.
As my group was approaching the finish, about 1k out, we caught up to a few walkers who had gone a little off course and were slower than their predicted time for the stage. My brother was there walking and even though he cheered me on, I wanted to finish the race with him. I slowed and he gave his best hobbling jog through the ITBS pain and we ran the final part of the stage together. It was a treat to finish the race together and meet our dad who was waiting for us at the finish. We couldn’t have asked for a better way to end a fantastic week together in the desert.
We all finished and were proud of how the race turned out. I won in a time of 22 hours, two minutes (which was a new course record!), my dad came in 20th, and my brother 32nd. We had so much fun that we’re thinking of going back next year and my brother is already promising to beat me next time around!