The 4 Deserts Sahara Race is part of Racing The Planet’s annual series of 250km global stage races. The Sahara edition has previously taken place in Egypt and Jordan, but the organisers have decided to switch the location to Namibia as of 2016. This year’s event took place from 1st to 7th May, and over 220 competitors gathered to test themselves against the new locale.
By Thomas Watson
Run this race if:
You want a tough but achievable self-supported stage race in a vast, remote environment.
4 Deserts Sahara, Namibia – Key Points
- A 6-stage, 250km / 155 mile race across the remote Namib desert and coastline.
- The event follows the existing 4 Deserts format – first 4 days average 40km/day, then stage 5 is ±80km with an optional campsite at half-way, and a rest day on the sixth day. Day 7 (stage 6) is a 10km stage to the finish line. The entire week is self-supported – you need to carry all food and equipment that you’re going to need. Only water and tents are provided. Checkpoints every 10km.
- The race takes part in a national park which is off-limits to the public. There’s many sections of vast emptiness – don’t expect to see many signs of civilisation over the week.
- There was loads of local wildlife around, though you might not see too much of it. There were plenty of jackals hanging around the campsites, and a few runners saw hyenas on the long day. I spotted a whale off the coast, and other people saw Springbok and some Rhino dung. We ran within 200ft of a huge seal colony. The course team worked closely with a Lion conservationist, who tags and tracks the prides of lions in the area – they actually changed part of the long day after seeing that a pride had been hanging around a couple of days previously.
- There’s less sand dunes (and sand in general) than you might expect from a desert race. 75% of the course terrain is fairly firm underfoot – mostly packed dirt and hard sand.
- The sand dunes, when they come, are really stunning – well worth the wait.
- The coastline, which features on days 2 and 5, tends to be buried in cloud and mist -so although it’s not so scenic, it’s a nice respite from the sun. It’s also windier near the coast, and although we got a Southerly wind it seems to change regularly.
- The desert campsites are great. A few competitors slept under the stars.
- Days 3 and 4 are in vast, open territory – and were very hot (felt around 40˚C).
- As usual, the 4 Deserts team have a huge infrastructure in place – they had a massive crew of local guides and drivers, as well as many volunteers and a great medical team. It’s a huge operation (220+ runners started) that they’re used to handling well. And as usual, this kind event attracts all kinds of interesting characters from around the globe.
4 Deserts Namibia – Stage-by-stage breakdown:
Pre-race / check-in
The host town for the Namibia race is the German-colonial coastal resort of Swakopmund, which takes almost everyone 2 or 3 flights to get to, depending where you’re coming from. The town itself is really cool and quaint with a lot of character, and there’s a couple of good supermarkets and sports stores for any last-minute race supply purchases. The two host hotels put on by RTP were fantastic as well.
I arrived two days before the race began, and the first person I met stepping out of the taxi was my friend Hiro from my Cambodia race last year! One of the best things about these races is seeing familiar faces in different parts of the world. I bumped into a few other people that evening, and caught up with my new room-mate Brendan Funk, who at 21 is attempting to be the youngest person ever to complete the 4 Deserts Grand Slam (all four races in one year).
The day before the race was taken up by the briefing, then check-in and equipment check, before all the competitors got a 3hr bus journey to the first campsite. I went to the supermarket before we left and stocked up on salami, cheeses, Coke and other snacks – all to eat before the race began. A lot of competitors make the mistake of starting their lightweight, dehydrated meals the night before the race starts . . . but there’s no point in starting on that stuff too early. I saw one guy on the bus with a couple of pizza boxes – he knows the script.
My backpack came in at 10.0kg – this is around the average weight, although a lot of runners managed to reduce this to as much as 6.5kg while still having all the mandatory equipment and enough calories for the race (you need to carry 2000 calories/day). I guess I had a few ‘nice to haves’ – such as a camera, sleeping pad and some extra snacks – but it seems like I could still do a lot to get that pack weight down.
Around 20 or 30 competitor’s bags, along with all their race equipment, got bumped off their flight from Johannesburg – this meant a lot of people were scrambling around Swakopmund, borrowing equipment from other runners and trying source replacement supplies locally. In the end, some of the bags turned up the morning before the race started, some didn’t.
At the camp site, I found my tent and met my tent mates (tents were of 9 or 10 people) and we hung out. Since we were on the coast it was quite cool, and we all had a fairly early night, all a wee bit nervous about starting the race the next day.
Stage 1 – 37km
And we’re off! Stage 1 was the shortest and easiest day of the race – it was practically flat, and fairly solid underfoot throughout. We even had a cool southerly tailwind for the whole day. This was a good chance for everyone to find their feet running with a pack in the Namibian desert, and suss out the rest of the field. We ran past some derelict mining equipment, and finished in a camp site in sand dunes near the beach. All in all a fairly straight-forward day, which we were all fairly glad of.
Stage 2 – 42km
Stage 2 included a lengthy stretch of beach running – probably around 25km. The soft sand made it hard to find a good rhythm, and a lot of runners lost a ton of energy here. At least the coastal fog kept us cool. The route did pass a massive seal colony and a cool shipwreck though. Then we had a 10km section heading in-land to the first proper desert campsite. A few people chose to leave their tents and sleep outside under the stars in the in-land campsites.
Stage 3 – 42km
We left the desert campsite and headed further in-land, across rocky terrain and past huge desert vistas – think Mad Max. It got pretty hot on stage 3 and there was no shade to be had – I found myself drinking extra water at the checkpoints before taking the mandatory 1.5 litres and moving on. Later sections of the day had us crossing sections covered with rocks that were perfect for tripping over, which slowed me down a lot. This was the first day I felt a real struggle, and put my iPod in to push through the final few km’s.
Stage 4 – 41km
Another relentless and hot day. Stage 4 was all about running across wide open vast spaces, with nothing for miles around except the distant hills on the horizon. It felt like we were running on the film set of The Martian (or just ‘running on Mars’ is maybe more succinct).
A few runners dropped out, succumbing to heat exhaustion. My friend Ricky collapsed on the course and got IV’d (when the doctor looks at you and decides you need intravenous fluid, instantly pulling you out of the race). It was a day of mind-over-matter, where there were no course features or distractions – just the wide open desert and a lot of heat, and your only choice was to keep going.
Stage 5 – 77km (The long day)
The long day is the stage that looms over the whole week – a lot of runners see it as the real challenge of the event, and give themselves the goal of getting to the start line of day 5 in the best possible condition. Once you’ve completed the long day you’re basically finished the race, too – just a 10km final stage afterwards – so the stakes are high. It’s also the day where the rankings jump around a lot – the difference between a good and bad long day is a matter of hours, not minutes. I’d been consistently landing in the Top 10 on the other days (much to my surprise), so I was looking for a strong long day to secure a good place.
In the end, I had a great day on the long day and my legs and feet held up for the duration. I was strong from the start and was able to enjoy just about the whole thing (…just about).
The first 20km or so led us out of the arid plains and into more sandy terrain, then after CP2 we started to weave along proper sand. Soon the trail took us up onto the spine of a huge sand dunes – think Lawrence of Arabia.
Real, untouched, pristine, giant dunes. Running on the dunes, I realised I was in 5th place because the only sign of human life was the four sets of footprints leading the way.
After reaching the highest point and end of the sand dune spine, you ran down the near-vertical dune face – best part of the whole race – and back onto flat terrain.
After the dunes, the course took us back to the coast for the final 30km. I was met by mist and a headwind, which got fairly annoying – I ended up listening to my iPod and walking for a few sections just to break up the boredom.
The coastline was a mixture of sandy 4×4 tracks, total off-road dune scrambling, then a final 13km stretch on the beach. Mentally, it was a long stretch – but once I knew the finish line was getting closer it spurred me on.
I probably went for around 4hrs without seeing another runner – between the dunes and the beach – until I caught sight of Jax, the first female runner, a few hundred yards behind me. This probably spurred me on a bit and I took off, flying through the final checkpoint and eventually catching up with Takuya, another runner, on the final beach. In the end, Takuya had had enough and had slowed down a lot so I soldiered on by, and eventually crossed the finish line after 8hrs 45mins, somehow coming 4th for the long day!
My goal had been to get to the finish line before dark on the long day, and I somehow got in around 4:45pm – so was pretty pleased. The rest of that evening was spent relaxing and meeting the other competitors as they came in.
During the day off (RTP gives you two days to complete stage 5 if you wish), we all relaxed around the campsite and took stock of the long day. People were still coming in until around 11am (bear in mind I’d finished the previous afternoon, so these people had spent some serious time out on the course). The campsite was at a seasonal fishing spot, and I managed to find a cold-water shower in one of the facility blocks so had a sneaky wash and chilled out for a while. Otherwise, the rest day was spent discussing the event, and what everyone was going to eat when they got back to town.
At some point, the results were published – and somehow I had ended up in 3rd place, with just a 5 minute lead on 4th place. I guess with the rankings jumping about over the week, a couple of withdrawals due to illness, and me having a strong long day I’d somehow averaged a consistent enough pace to push me into a potential podium position. I make an effort not to be very competitive, and try and ignore the rankings for most of the week – but when you end up with a shot at 3rd place, you’ve kind of got to at least try and defend it. All I had to do was hold on to my 5 minute lead on the final 10km stretch – which should be easy, right?
Stage 6 – 10km
The guy in 4th place was a Japanese runner called Tayuka Wakaora. I hadn’t really had a chance to speak with him over the week, so just before the final 10km started I nervously introduced myself and asked how he was doing. He basically told me he was doing just fine, and seemed pretty focused, so I left him to it.
Anyway, we get to the start line and before I know what’s happening the final 10km has started, and Tayuka, along with Wataru and Tommy Chen (the guys in 1st and 2nd place) take off like fireworks, immediately putting distance between themselves and everybody else. I tried to keep on their tail but lost ground fast, and I was still messing around trying to get my pack on properly.
The 10km took us over uneven terrain, a little spine of dunes, then across a vast, un-even salty/sandy expanse – all with a decent head-wind. After about 3 or 4km, the top three runners (including Tayuka) were just dots on the horizon. I stuck my iPod in and necked a gel, but I’m no sprinter and the uneven terrain isn’t my forte.
Eventually a few more runners pass me and I ended up crossing the finish line with my mate David in about 53 miutes, feeling great to have finished but nervous at how damn fast the little Japanese guy had been – he had definitely put a few minutes onto my time. The results were kept from us, to be unveiled at the awards ceremony.
At the finish line, RTP had organised for fish & chips and loads of beers for all the competitors. After taking a bunch of photos, we all piled on buses for the long ride back to Swakopmund. The first thing I did was take a long shower, then went straight to the hotel restaurant and had one of the best steaks I’ve ever tasted.
In the evening, RTP hosted a huge celebratory awards ceremony with a buffet and plenty of booze. There was loads of speeches, photos and videos from the week, then of course – the awards.
Unbelievably, on the last stage I’d somehow held on to 3rd place – by something like 20 seconds. It was a total fluke, and not something likely to happen again. So hats off to Tayuka, who made me run for my life on that last day.
Pack – WAA 20l ultra bag with front pouch
Shoes – New Balance Leadville MT1210 D V2
Date: 1-7th May 2016
Overall Time: 28hrs 20min
Position: 3rd overall (…just…)
Race Website: 4 Deserts, Sahara Race Official Site
My Daily Blog during the race: Click here
My article on Simon Wheatcroft – The Blind Runner I met during the race.
Photo Credits: all photos are my own