It was mid-year and time once again to marvel at the creation and formation of the earth. Eyes cast downwards, moving cautiously so as to not succumb to the law of gravity, I headed down the 550-metre drop, into the belly of the beast!
Our crack in the earth is something special. Local legends explain how a snake ripped through the earth causing this winding fissure as it escaped its hunters who were defending their livestock and interests. Scientists tell us that this zone of weakness in the earth’s crust split millions of years ago to form a rift valley about 20 kilometres wide. The river by default chose the fissure as it meandered through the valley in wide loops.
To many an athlete, the canyon walls are as familiar as an old friend. This is an unusual race. Most ultra-trail races around the world send you up. This one however sends you down between the towering rock walls. There is little elevation gain, which is the universal measurement of race difficulty. However it is awkward, uncomfortable, hot, self-supported, with lots of rock hopping and sand scrambling. If you do not respect it, it will not respect you. This is the Fish River Ultra Marathon!
Previous participants have got lost, faced leopards and have been hauled out of the canyon after taking short cuts, leading to some even running against the flow of the river to much amusement.
I had decided to take my son Michael with me this year and he quickly found his niche with the technical guys, as he assisted the Spot Tracker crew in getting all the emergency trackers loaded with batteries and ready. The pilot of the drone that hovered above the Canyon, filming us for a later media production, let him fly it for a short while.
It was the first year that there was a waterpoint for the runners at Sandy Slope, as well as at the usual Barbel Pools and Kochas Drift, due to the ongoing drought. The water in the river was obviously not of the best quality, although all competitors would end up drinking it.
The night before the race the Gondwana Collection Namibia chefs from the Canyon properties delivered a wonderful dinner on the edge of the Canyon. The descent into the Canyon after the start of the race the next morning was the usual story and many runners went too fast, overworking their quad muscles early on. Running down into the canyon I tried to find my rhythm as I looked up to the top of its walls. After Mountain Chat Ridge and Zebra Pools, I came around the corner to the view of Klipspringer Ridge and Table Mountain. This amazing mountain is an exact replica of Table Mountain in the Western Cape.
Doing more boulder hopping than I should have, as my inner quad muscles began to lock I realised that I had done little real race-specific terrain training for this race. Crossing a large riverbed it was time for the first unofficial shortcut, the “crack in the wall” I call it, that meanders through and over Baboon mountain. A massive black stallion did not see me closing in on him and after I startled him he took off with force showering debris down on me.
Approaching Kooigoed Heights and the first official short cut and passing the Nama Graves, towards the always unoccupied water point on the hill near Four Fingers and Barbel Pools, I noticed that the temperature was increasing. It is amusing every year how this water point after Barbel Pools has two cooler boxes ready, two empty cars and no one in sight. Welcome to solitude!
Kochas Drift was once again a well put together water point leading to Bandage Pass and on to Sandy Beach. Passing Fool’s Gold Bend, things were heating up as lunch time approached so I took a short swim that cooled down my whole body at yet another river crossing. As I made it into Ai Ais and the finish, satisfied with my third position, I was reminded of why this race needs to be respected. There were many stories and achievements shared at a wonderful dinner that night, while we sat watching and supporting the real heroes, those who were still out there well until midnight.
A fast race had been predicted but the actual results showed that race times were slower this year, due to the abundance of soft sand and the lack of water because of the drought.
In conclusion, this is the race in which we as Namibian’s tell the world, we are here! We are isolated, beautiful, wild and untamed. We are non-conformists and our landscape commands attention and reverence.
Author: Kyron Raad